Imagine a nurse who is caring for a sick person who is in pain, and ultimately in danger of death. She can take one of two attitudes. In the first, all her sympathies are with the patient. She is very upset by the situation, and really quite depressed by it. In the second, she is well aware of the patient’s pain and understands the condition. But she has no time to sympathise because she must keep her professional head clear of emotion while providing the best treatment available. Which nurse would you prefer to be looking after you?
That crude example helps us to distinguish between sympathy and empathy. It’s important to understand the difference if we are to live a Christian life. We are instructed to love our neighbour as ourselves, but we have to be careful how we think about this. Instinctively our reaction is to benefit our neighbour in the way we would want to be benefited ourselves. But what we should be doing is benefiting him in terms of himself.
A story I enjoy is that of the woman whose car stalls in traffic. In no time the driver caught behind her starts banging on his horn. The woman goes round to him and says sweetly: “Tell you what. Why don’t you get my car started, while I toot your horn.”
When my wife played a part in choosing people with the right temperament to train as marriage counsellors the ones she was most likely to reject were those with a ready answer. They prided themselves on their quick ability to give sound advice to those in difficulties. So I was glad that she did not have to select, or unselect, me. Tell me about any difficult human condition, and I know exactly what the sufferer should do next. No wonder I write for the Catholic Herald. Not only can I give my opinion without being asked for it, I actually get paid for doing so.
So I have to be very disciplined in ordinary life. I find it quite difficult because I have children and grandchildren who all, I think, would benefit much from my greater experience. But I need to listen to them, and understand where they are and how they see things. That makes it easier for me to ask the questions which may help them find their own way rather than recommending mine.
So here’s a dilemma. Several years ago I was speaking at a conference of marriage counsellors in Ireland on this subject. I chose abortion as an example. One approach I might have taken was that saving an individual human’s life was so important that this was the one case where persuasion was justified. The other approach was to ensure that a client had thought about all the relevant elements and was aware of the alternatives – and then to leave her to decide for herself. In loving my neighbour, which approach should I have taken?
The nurse for me is one who is able to balance the two, without letting either exclude the other .. hedging my bets on that!
When relating to another, on ‘personal problems’ (their’s, mine or shared) or in everyday life, i always feel the need to know where they and i are coming from (and visa versa). We can them sympathise from an ‘enlightened empathy’ with each other; and work toward a third shared ‘answer’. The questions that need to be asked seem to be clearer then, in a sense ‘fuller’. Even if not concluded fully, and produce further questions. (As they usually do at first).
A ‘journey’ of subjective discovery that entails trust and openness from both (all) involved that is built over time, and ‘naturally’ produces ‘change’. When that ‘happens’ then it is a real empathetic relationship, from a sympathetic basis, for both (all). There is no general subjective politic line, owed solely by either, that is the ‘correct’ one for both.
It’s by no means an easy path to tread, and it seems it’s not acceptable/understood/felt by many … but the only one that i can be at peace with.
When an ‘agreement to differ’ (be different) is genuinely shared and respected (by both) nothing is taken away from either, and nothing from either is a threat. All both have (are) is used to the benefit of both. It may entail some personal ‘sacrifice’ & pains; but it’s not destructive of either.
(For me that’s where the Spirit is alive & allowed to work; where loving my neighbour/being loved by my neighbour is genuine).
Through the mutual (it takes both) laying aside of closed opinions, without being coerced/forced to let go of subjective beliefs/opinions, ’empathy’ is created and shared, often without the conscious realisation of either party. …… And change ‘healing’ just happens.
The trained/professional/wise can learn from the ‘inexperienced’ too.
There is of course the situations where one is in a position of ‘authority’ over the other, and a divergence of views may call for that authority to be exercised due to legality and law ….
Having been at odds with ‘authority’ over me i know what that is like, and know i can retain, have retained, the above stance ready to take the possible consequences imposed. Which have been both beneficial and detrimental at differing times.
Not having experienced being in authority over another (thank God) i don’t know how it would be.
And of course i wouldn’t let a three year old play with a box of matches or cross a busy road! There is a common sense to be included!
But i wouldn’t tell an adult or teenager they ‘absolutely can’t’ if, after my best ‘counsel’ on the pros and cons, they were still hell bent (in my opinion; and they’d know it was!) on doing whatever …
I hope that’s what you were getting at in the post … not feeling very empathetic at the moment!
Very inspiritng (inspiring was replaced by spellchecker and I think I will let it stand), to read your response G.D. That sounds to me to be a highly skilled practice of Pastoral Care. I see that primary acceptance of the other which you describe as essentially Christ like.
In a word you describe for me what ‘loving” is. Not much more to say really – I think you have covered the entire range of responses here.
I don’t know what I will have to say to Quentin now.
Thank you, galerimo.
Only wish i could ‘be’ in that ‘state’ more often. Know it well; but don’t ‘walk’ it enough; much too selfish!
Regarding those binary nurses I’ll have the second nurse thanks, Quentin. The professional one. If I am in pain and dying I want the “know how” attending to my needs which are primarily medical. I can find plenty of loving elsewhere.
Try this for a comparison. Sympathy is what makes us send cute and cuddly toys to people because of the compassion they arouse in us because of their hardship. Empathy is when we ask those people what they would like us to send them before we do anything.
Regarding your dilemma with the Irish marriage counsellors I would suggest that persuasion is always justified, just not very effective. People will do what they want in the end. So the loving thing is to be honest with yourself and try not to get in the way of other people’s freedoms.
I would prefer the nurse who knows what she (or he) is doing. That must include how to interact with patients most effectively – which could include recognising their fears of disease or treatment and helping them to overcome them.
God has made us free – but open to persuasion. Once persuaded of something, we are no longer entirely free, but obliged to act in accordance with that conviction. Suppose you are talking to someone balanced on a girder on the Clyde Bridge. Is your priority to encourage him (probably him – more young male suicides) to exercise his free choice, or to get him to climb down without jumping?
That’s at one end of the spectrum. At the other end of the spectrum, you don’t know what your client’s problem is until it is described to you, and even then you have no idea what’s best to do. At that stage you may ask “What had you thought of doing?” A sensitive listener (it may be obvious that I am not one) may be able to elicit options, and to point out tactfully some drawbacks of the more disastrous ones. The decision rests with the client. But (I say) you as counsellor have the responsibility to do you what you can to help the client reach the best (or least bad) decision. You must be guided by your own convictions, even if the client rejects them.
The main result of the passion for ‘non-directive counselling’ seems to be to encourage shills to ring up pro-life help lines and try to trap them into giving directive advice – too often successfully.
The abortion dilemma is indeed a tough one. On the one hand, if I am convinced (as I am) that a human life starts at conception, then intentionally ending that life is murder (even though not in law) so how can I do anything but try to discourage someone from doing it? On the other hand, as a counsellor (official or unofficial) I want the person to think things through and reach her own decision.
An early embryo almost certainly does not feel any pain. Also, it is likely that that early embryo is not yet embedded in a network of family-and-friends relationships such that there are other people who are going to feel distressed and/or guilty if its life is ended. So in such a case I might perhaps encourage the person to think through her feelings, and consider the options open to her, without clarifying my own views to her explicitly.
If on the other hand the pregnancy is more advanced, – say 16 or 20 weeks – I think I can only say: “This is my view on unborn human life; this being so, you may want to consider whether I am the right person to advise you, or whether you would want to find another counsellor”.
Of course, if the person was “hell bent” (as in GD’s example above) on terminating her pregnancy, she would probably not be looking for counselling in the first place.
On abortion specifically – see https://www.mercatornet.com/features/view/a-pro-life-talk-at-google-headquarters-is-a-hit/20038 . [If you do not subscribe to Mercatornet, I cannot recommend it too highly – try it!
Maybe we need an addition to the old catechism Q&A?
“Q, In how many ways may we either cause or share in another’s sin?
A, By counsel [ add here, “including non-directive counselling that fails to warn against committing the sin”]…; by command, by consent,,,, by defending the ill done.”
My wife has previously proposed to add to the list
“by making a good story of it afterwards”.