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?