Empathy: softened hearts and hopes restored

“A healthy person cannot feel the pains of sickness, nor can one who is well-fed feel the pangs of hunger.”

This passage, a popular saying of the time, is quoted by St Bernard (1090-1153) in his first teaching as abbot of Clairvaux (1119). It is a commentary on chapter seven of the Rule of St Benedict on Humility.

In his teaching, Bernard points out that self-knowledge gives rise to compunction of heart, which in turn leads to recognition of the needs of others, compassion, works of mercy, and knowledge of God.

“Men and women whose inner vision has … been cleansed by the exercise of charity toward their neighbour can delight in the contemplation of truth in itself, for it is love of truth which makes them take upon themselves the misfortunes of others. But can people find the truth in their neighbour if they refuse to support their brothers and sisters in this way – if on the contrary they either scoff at their tears or disparage their joys, being insensitive to all feelings but their own?”

Clarifying this popular saying, he adds:

“The more familiar we are with sickness or hunger, the greater will be our compassion for others who are sick or hungry. Just as pure truth can only be seen by the pure in heart, so the sufferings of our fellow men and women are more truly felt by hearts that know suffering themselves. However, we cannot sympathise with the wretchedness of others until we first recognise our own. Then we shall understand the feelings of others by what we personally feel, and know how to come to their help. Such was the example shown by our Saviour, who desired to suffer himself in order that he might learn how to show mercy. Scripture says of him that he learned the meaning of obedience through what he suffered [Hebrews 5:8, cf Philippians 2:8]. In the same way he learned the meaning of mercy. Not that the Lord whose mercy is from age to age was ignorant of mercy’s meaning until then; he knew its nature from all eternity, but he learned it by personal experience during his days on earth” (From the treatise on Degrees of Humility and Pride).

Contemplating these words, we are reminded of a similar, often-quoted proverb of our own time: “Before you criticise a person, first walk a mile in their shoes”. The origin of this proverb is quite difficult to unearth as there are many variations on it, each generation seemingly adding their own ‘spin’ to it, but the meaning is clear: to empathise means being capable of identifying and understanding another person’s feelings, without necessarily experiencing them for yourself at that particular moment. It is the ability literally to experience the world from another person’s perspective, to walk in their shoes, to view life from their living conditions and to consider what it feels like to be that person by drawing on one’s own life experience of suffering.

The application of this can be seen in our day-to-day lives; it’s relatively easy to laugh about someone who is not as educated as you, or rant about “the lazy unemployed” when you have never been unemployed in your life. But once you experience for yourself what it feels like to be teased about your lack of an education or the difficulty in finding a job, your point of view might change drastically and also your feelings about those who are facing a similar situation.

There are many challenges currently facing our society: the after effects of Brexit, the influx of migrant workers, asylum-seekers and refugees; the nationwide shortage of affordable, social housing; an overstretched and under-resourced NHS (likewise state schools); cuts to welfare benefits; concerns about the environment; increased child poverty, etc. In this (often times) self-centred world, it seems that many have forgotten that not only are they responding to the aspiration to happiness, but everyone else is as well; God has placed this in the heart of every person (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1818). Naturally, centring the whole world on ourselves is bound to cause conflict because we tend to forget about others, causing us to see more differences between ourselves and “them”. But in reality, we are all the same. Irrespective of our ethnicity, ethical background or religious affiliation – we are all striving for happiness, peacefulness and love. Also, at best, each of us is trying to avoid sadness and suffering. So, instead of being blinded by the differences that superficially separate us from another person, we should strive to acknowledge the commonalities we share with that person.

This has implications for the way our nation is governed and how we vote. Pope Francis, in his encyclical Laudato Si’ (On Care for our Common Home), refers to “the effects of technological innovations on employment, social exclusion, the inequitable distribution and consumption of energy and other services, social breakdown, increased violence and a rise in new forms of social aggression, drug trafficking, growing drug use by young people, and the loss of identity” (LS 46). He says that “a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach”, the human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together, and we “must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (LS 48).

In the same document, Pope Francis acknowledges that while not everyone is called to engage directly in political life, nevertheless organisations exist to promote the common good and nurture a sense of solidarity with those who suffer and are the poorest in society. We are all too aware that not all policies proposed, adopted and implemented by politicians contribute to human flourishing and the common good, but sometimes result in greater deprivation, human misery and suffering. Arising out of a love for society, the Pope advocates engagement with such organisations and community action; again, not simply to halt environmental degradation but to encourage a “culture of care” for those whose hopes and dreams for themselves and their families have been shattered. “When we feel that God is calling us to intervene with others in these social dynamics, we should realise that this too is part of our spirituality, which is an exercise of charity and, as such, matures and sanctifies us” (LS 231).

We need to gain a fuller and deeper understanding of what our vocation today entails: to hear the invitation as Christians to embody the compassion of Jesus in the world; to admit that we are weak and wounded healers; to experience God’s presence with us; and, finally, to rely on God’s power always at work in all that we do.

Benedict Luckhurst

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