Insights on empathy


(Carson Weitnauer) #1

Hi friends,

My friend Lowe Finney wrote a warm, insightful piece on empathy for Slice of Infinity. Here are some excerpts:

In her book, The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison describes her time as a “medical actor” as she role-played different patients for the benefit of medical school students. Following the exchanges, Jamison documents how the medical student performed and to what extent the student was able to empathize with the “patient.” She points out that the students were not expected simply to possess an attitude of concern for the patient but that the student was expected to appropriately give life to that concern and, hence, make it evident in the heart of the patient. Within this setting, Jamison describes empathy:

“Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us—it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves. It’s made of exertion, that dowdier cousin of impulse.”

And so the point of Zacchaeus’s story comes into focus: empathy. Empathy is about choosing a common vantage point and an intentionally shared perspective.

This is the whole point of empathy. Not just that it’s done, but that the other person sees and experiences another’s kind regard of them, another’s effort to try on the same pair of shoes.

In an age where interaction is based increasingly on technological means and remote interface, there is an ever-present challenge to engage personally and without the boundaries of distance, culture, race, or tribe. Empathy reminds us that we need to be old-fashioned in our relationships. It is the ultimate first step in our understanding of and love for others. It requires effort. It requires more than saying “that’s too bad” or “I feel for you” or “I feel your pain.” It demands extending ourselves.

I think you’ll find the whole article enjoyable.

Two questions:

  1. How would you further explain (or disagree with) Lowe’s definition of empathy?
  2. What are some practical ways you demonstrate empathy with others?

(Helen Tan) #2

Hi @CarsonWeitnauer, I like that Lowe presents empathy as a choice. I think that because empathy is often described as a feeling (“I feel empathy towards that person”), I saw it as something that was beyond my control and could come in varying degrees, mainly a function of the type of personality one has. Making it a choice changes all that.

The definition as seen in what Lowe says here spoke to me:

Zacchaeus needed to see Jesus seeing Zacchaeus’s world as Zacchaeus himself saw it. Zacchaeus needed to see Jesus choosing to see and stay with Zacchaeus.”

It’s interesting too that at the start of this year, something dropped into my heart to set aside my prejudices, go against my natural inclinations and approach people whom many (including me) find difficult to befriend, and seek to find out what they are really like, to catch of glimpse of what it’s like in their world. According to Lowe, that’s empathy when done in a genuine manner. In doing that, I’ve seen unexpectedly attractive attributes in these people. And the bonus I got out of that is that I felt a sense of freedom, and I wasn’t expecting to be a beneficiary of doing that. I was set free from my preconceived judgemental attitude and the oftentimes unfounded displeasure associated with it. Empathy shows us aspects of people which we’ve been blinded to and oftentimes the reasons behind what they portray on the outside. It’s a powerful choice that we can make.

Thanks for sharing the article.

(Melvin Greene) #3

I would agree with Lowe’s definition of empathy. It is the ability to understand, and even feel someone else’s emotions. I especially like this one quote: “This is the whole point of empathy. Not that it’s done, but that the other person sees and experiences another’s kind regard of them, another’s effort to try on the same pair of shoes.” It’s like what my dad always told me: “Never judge another man unless you’ve walked a mile in his boots.”

In my training as a counselor, my instructor told me that the empathy bond between counselor and client is absolutely vital to the successful healing of the client. If the counselor does not demonstrate empathy with the client, the client will not trust the counselor.

I believe that most people can be empathetic if they worked at it. I also believe that it can be a spiritual gift, or a natural gift. I’ve always been able to empathize with people. I’m not saying this as a boast. Trust me, there was a time when I thought it was more of a curse than a blessing. I looked at it as a liability, or a weakness. I say this with much shame. But, you have to understand that I wasn’t a Christian, and I didn’t understand what a gift it was. It didn’t fit into my idea of what a man is supposed to be. It just felt like a weakness. I thank God that He brought me to my senses! I’ve been able to minister to many people because I can empathize with them. Once again, I don’t say this as a boast. I can do nothing apart from Christ. I know that it is Christ in me that is working. I’m just a conduit of His love.

Anyway, being empathetic doesn’t mean you always have the right thing to say. Some times it just means that you sit with someone who is dealing with the loss of a friend and let him cry and cuss and work his way through it without saying anything. Some times it is verbal. Some times you might have to help them verbalize what they’re feeling, because they just can’t put it into words themselves.

One quick commentary, if I may. I think some of the problems that we are seeing in our society today are brought on by social media. It seems that people would rather text, or post something on Facebook, or Twitter, than to interact face to face. I believe that we are losing our ability to have empathy for other people. I believe that’s why we are seeing so much violence, especially in our young people. They have not learned to emotionally connect with other people, and they don’t seem to have any qualm with taking someone’s life. Now, more than ever, we need to be able to show them the love of Christ.

(Megan Kemp) #4
  1. If empathizing is paying attention then we must learn how to listen well; to listen actively. That looks like restating what you’ve heard or rephrasing what someone has shared, and allowing space and time to pause. In person that may mean silence; online it may mean waiting to think about what someone has shared before responding.
  2. If empathizing is extending ourselves, then in person that may mean reaching out to touch someone’s shoulder in a moment of pain. Extending ourselves also means sacrificially giving up our precious time for the sake of another person.
    I can better empathize if I pray. The Lord can help bring understanding to that which I would not have understood before. He gives me the care for things that otherwise I would not have cared about.

(Jennifer Judson) #5

Thank you, Melvin, for your insights from a counselor’s perspective. Very insightful.

(terri champion) #6

I agree with you that it seems our young people are having problems empathizing with others that they are in contact with. I don’t know how we can make a difference in this problem.

(Carson Weitnauer) #7

Hi Helen, thank you. I hadn’t realized, until you put it that way, how often empathy is presented as a feeling rather than a choice. This really does reframe things!! “I will choose to be more empathetic” is a very empowering and positive way to go. I also really appreciate your own story of what this has been like for you. It reminds me of my grandmother, who was one of the most beautiful people in my life, who regularly told me, “Always look for the good in people, they will often show it to you.” Man did she do that. And she was universally beloved. Thank you for reminding me of her!

Melvin, thank you for your story and insights. I think I am still very much learning how to be empathetic, so it helps to hear how people who are naturally/spiritually gifted at empathy share what it is like from their perspective. It is interesting that being empathetic in some cultures is coded as ‘not masculine.’ But you look at the life of Jesus and he was incredibly empathetic! You might even say he was perfectly empathetic. I’m grateful for your tender ability to accept and love people as they are. That’s certainly a gift here in RZIM Connect!

Also, isn’t it the case that a lot of Christian discipleship is technique oriented, and this can have a way of dehumanizing people and conversations? Learn these five steps to being a better Christian! Nothing wrong with the clarity of that, but as you’ve put it, sometimes we do everything faithfully and we’re still in a conversation where we are stumped with nothing to say, just our accepting presence to offer someone going through a difficult experience.

Megan, I think it is hard to listen well. We are so distracted by notifications on our phones, etc. And online, there can be a habit of skimming vs slowing down to process. If all we want is convenience, it will be hard to have real friendships. The shallow end of the pool has its limits… this is a massive cultural change piece.

I also wonder if there is another connection between how present we are to God and how present we are to one another, between our prayer life and our relational quality? As we pray, our souls are stretched by experiencing the Father’s empathy for us and by our understanding of his heart. That experience in and of itself helps us become more empathetic people by nature.

Terri, I think we will have to empathetically walk alongside teens, looking for the good God has placed in them. We need to see the hope and opportunity of the next generation.

(Jennifer Judson) #8

This discussion on empathy reminds me of the movie The Horse Whisperer. Robert Redford plays a man that uses his empathetic powers to heal horses, along the way he heals people, too.

At the beginning of the movie a truck hits a young, teenage girl on her horse. Both the girl and the horse are severely injured. Both have physical and mental wounds to overcome. Through research the mother finds out about the horse whisperer and takes them all out to his ranch in Montana.

Robert Redford’s character knows the girl had deep internal wounds in her spirit, not to mention her new challenges of dealing with a prosthetic leg. He’s slowly through the movie won her confidence. There’s a scene one evening in his cabin where he is scrambling some eggs for the two of them. Suddenly while he is attending to that, the girl begins to talk and open up.

He turns off the stove and he just goes to the table where she’s sitting and sits down and listens. He hears all she has to say. He does not dispute or deny her feelings about guilt, but he does finally share that he believes the horse was trying to protect her–that out of love he was trying to shield her from the impact of the truck.

It struck me when I was watching that scene how powerful his empathy was. First, he removed all distractions and focused solely on her–in that moment nothing else existed in the universe. Second, he was quiet. He allowed there to be long pauses and crying without interrupting to make the situation easier for either of them. He heard her. He intuitively understood the pain and did not seek to combat it with logic. He allowed her to expose the pain and relive it, sometimes you have to re-open a wound for it to heal. Then, when appropriate, the gave her a new dimension in which to see the scene that she had been replaying in her mind for months.

It’s a scene I’ve obviously never forgotten. There was so much power in his just giving ALL of his attention to her no matter how difficult the situation became. It was not a Christian movie, but I always felt that particular scene was very Christ-like. It also helped me see how often I’d tried to offer comfort instead of really listening.

(Jennifer Judson) #9

In the Members Lounge section of RZIM Connect is a post by Rachel Davis with WellSpring. In describing recent events at a mission supported by WellSpring, she said:

The incarnational gift of presence, I believe, is one of the hardest and most beautiful things we can give one another.

How beautifully said and a great description of empathy.