It has been on my mind to write a blog on empathy, and David Brooks’ column in last Thursday’s New York Times pushed me out of my inertia. Brooks talks about the importance of going beyond facts and even understanding to empathy.
Brooks wrote: “The highest rung on the stairway to understanding is intimacy. Our master-teacher here is Augustine. As he aged, Augustine came to reject those who thought they could understand others from some detached, objective stance. He came to believe that it take selfless love to truly know another person. Love is a form of knowing and being known. Affection motivates you to want to see everything about another. Empathy opens you up to absorb the good and the bad. Love impels you not just to observe, but to seek union — to think as another thinks and feel as another feels. “
To understand is to comprehend what is happening; to sympathize is to be aware of what is happening and be touched by it; to empathize is to share another’s feelings, to suffer with them. When mothers heard of the kidnapping of young girls in Nigeria, they suffered with those Nigerian mothers. They more than understood and sympathized…their hearts ached for them.
It is so easy to isolate and insulate ourselves from the suffering of others in our society. Our gated communities and patrolled neighborhoods are safe and secure enclaves. Pope Francis went to Lampedusa, an island in the Mediterranean that is filled with refugee immigrants from Africa. He went where he could see them and smell them and weep with them over their loved ones and others who didn’t make it across the sea to safety. He said to those present, “Our society has forgotten what it means to cry with others, to empathize. It’s the globalization of indifference, which has taken away our ability to feel.”
The poor are not invisible by nature, but because we refuse to see them. We have eyes but will not see. (Mark 8:18) Globalizing our indifference is seeing faces in a crowd, not a suffering woman or child. When President Franklin Roosevelt was told during the depression that people in general had enough food, he replied, people do not starve in general, they starve in particular.
We are our brothers and sisters’ keepers; the love of Christ demands it.