Prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance – the classical cardinal virtues. They read well but their old fashioned names allow us to leave them in the back of our minds. So it might be useful to look at some of the virtues which we meet everyday. My first virtue to be examined is Empathy.
This habit is closely connected to loving our neighbour since it requires us to be responsive to him as he is in himself and not merely as we see him from the outside. It should not be confused with sympathy (often good in itself but not relevant here) which means sharing our neighbour’s feelings. Empathy means understanding what these feelings are so that we can react constructively to them.
A hospital nurse will no doubt feel sympathy for her patients from time to time. However she knows that she cannot afford to allow too much emotional involvement; this would not only be an unbearable strain for her but it could well interfere with her professional care. Yet if she is without empathy and so has no understanding of what her patients are feeling or experiencing then her ability to help them will be much reduced.
Empathy preserves us from thinking that what is good for us will necessarily be good for our neighbour. This would be to love him as if he were ourselves. If we love him as we love ourselves then we have to try to love him in his own terms – from inside, so to speak. Only in this way can we love him in the way we love ourselves.
Imagine a situation – quite familiar nowadays – when you have finally reached a customer service clerk after a tedious track through an automated telephone system. How easy it is to allow your aggravation to colour your attitude to what you might see as non-cooperation. But think for a moment how it must feel to be the clerk, who is bound by the company’s regulations and has spent the day, as he does every day, dealing with aggrieved customers.
Does the situation look a little different now.? Is it possible that a better understanding of what the other person is experiencing would motivate us to be more constructive, and might even get us the help we require? As it happens telephone staff rate very low on job satisfaction; you might not care to change places with them except in your imagination.
But more important, perhaps, are our relations: spouses, children, parents, siblings etc. Of course we love them all, but how about our empathy? Have we really thought about their feeling, or just assume them? I look back on a long and excellent marriage. And I can see many issues I could have handled better if I had used empathy more fully. How about you?
Apologies for the late appearance of this blog. Entirely my fault, I fear.