What is empathy and why is it relevant today? Bishop David Evans explores how Jesus and the philosopher Edith Stein understand empathy, and its relevance to the flourishing of our relationships and the deepening of our faith.
What is the meaning of life? This question may become significant at any stage of life. It may be a fleeting feeling, or something more profound. The answer may seem obvious. The question may also seem perplexing, and prompt further reflection. This series is for all who are touched by the sense that life itself raises questions that need to be explored, for the sake of our own understanding of ourselves, of how we relate to other people, and how we may respond to God.
Bishop David Evans identifies six related topics that can begin to provide answers to this question. Our first resource is Scripture, the Word of God, which may be found to prompt and respond to many human questions. Modern Philosophy is another resource. This provides a rich array of how European thinkers have addressed the question of life’s meaning from the 17th to the beginning of the nineteenth century. There is no need to be put off by the word ‘philosophy’. According to the philosopher Pope St John Paul II, everyone has a philosophy of life. Reflecting with more systematic philosophers may help to broaden and deepen that personal philosophy.
Identity – it’s not all about me but about us.
Generosity – giving and giving away.
Adaptability – being and becoming.
Empathy – are we each other’s keeper?
Paradox – managing without resolution.
Community – building now and beyond.
Each theme follows the same model of:
A themed reflection from the Bible and modern Philosophical thinking.
An image and reflection inspired by the main theme.
A question and action point to help with individual or group discussion.
A short prayer to end the session.
Suggested further reading for going deeper.
He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”
We will come to him and make our home with him.
But go to my brothers and say to them “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”
Cain’s punishment for killing his brother Abel was not physical death, but the spiritual death of complete isolation from the human race while remaining under God’s protection. Cain was punished as much for his callous rejection of his relationship with his brother as for his murder. The question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” has become famous for its inhumanity and for its absence of fellow feeling for someone that Cain should have been most closely attached to. Cain’s punishment made public the isolation that, by these words, he had already chosen for himself. One element of the fellow feeling that Cain lacked is empathy. This is the ability to enter into another person’s thoughts and feelings to such an extent that they become one’s own.
Jesus’ words to St. Mary Magdalene outside the empty tomb on Easter Sunday morning are a repudiation of Cain’s hostility. Cain thrived on division. Jesus’ death and resurrection restored unity. He would say to the disciples that evening, “Peace be with you.” Before that however, he affirmed the reality of restored relationships between God and humanity, and among people, through what he said to Mary Magdalene. He called the disciples “my brothers” and spoke of his Father as their Father, and his God as their God. Jesus’ death and resurrection emphasise and restore fellow feeling. His resurrection highlights empathy as integral to human and divine relationships and as an additional impulse contributing to the meaning of life.
At the Last Supper, before leaving for the Mount of Olives, Jesus prepared the disciples for the new relationships that would be among the fruits of his resurrection. He told them about the Holy Spirit who dwells with them. He revealed the love that will be shown them by the Father and himself and which will manifest him to them. He promised that he and his Father will come and dwell with them. The unity between the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit and human beings is not superficial or fleeting. It is a harmony of nature, love and knowledge as real as anything solid and material that human beings run up against in everyday life. It underpins the bond of empathy.
Philosophers have discussed ‘the problem of other minds’. Descartes had shown that he was not alone in the universe, but his account of human knowledge still left human beings isolated from each other. Descartes had emerged from his mind into the physical world but he had not explained how his or any other mind could be accessible to anyone else. ‘It seemed as though the only way anyone could know what I was thinking or feeling was for me to tell them. That could only be successful if I, or anyone else, could guarantee that I, or they, were telling the truth’. Descartes’s account of being human included something of the isolation that had been the consequence of Cain’s crime.
In 1916, Edith Stein (1891-1942) was awarded her doctoral degree for a thesis published the following year called ‘On the Problem of Empathy’. Edith Stein is also known by her religious and canonised name St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. She wrote on empathy before her conversion to Catholicism, when she was a student of, and assistant to, Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), the founder of a movement in philosophy called Phenomenology. He was determined to discover what things are by concentrating on the mental image they gave rise to while eliminating everything that was extraneous to their nature. Edith Stein took this approach in her study of empathy.
She took a simple example as her staring point: that of a friend who tells her that he has lost his brother and she feels his pain. Empathy is her ability to feel his pain even though his pain is not her own. It is not something she feels directly, or remembers or imagines, but it is hers nevertheless, as well as being her friend’s. Stein investigated the essential factors of being human that made this possible. One of these is the ability to recognise another human being as a person in the fullest sense, just as I am myself. The ‘I’ that I am recognises, acknowledges and reacts to another person as an ‘I’ having the same physical and psychological nature as I have.
At the end of her initial exploration of this reality, Edith Stein made bold claims for empathy. She stated that empathy was a kind of perceiving that involved body, intelligence and feelings. She called this type of perception ‘foreign consciousness.’ This was not a negative definition; it simply implied that empathy leads to the confident assertion that others exist, who are different from me as individuals, while having the same human nature as I do. Empathy in this sense allows people to understand the inner life of others. Edith Stein also asserts that this is how believers understand the nature of God, and how God understands human beings. God fully understands human beings, but human beings can misunderstand God in the same way as they can misunderstand each other. This implies that while perfect empathy goes with the being of God – that the imperfect empathy human beings achieve is one of the ways in which we are created in God’s likeness. Thought of in this way, empathy is not just a harmony of human and divine faculties of intelligence, emotion and will, but a source of the divine and human unity revealed at Jesus’ resurrection.
Reflection on the image by Fleur Dorrell:
What do you see in this image? Is it a man being comforted by another man while being watched by a woman? Are they at work and perhaps he has just lost his job? Is the woman his boss who has just fired him while the colleague gently touching him, is from his Union or the HR department? How will he tell his wife, and especially his Dad? Will he be able to get another job soon? The mortgage and bills are a nightmare as it is.
Or maybe this is the breaking of tragic news. Life was going well, he has a stable job and was promoted recently. His kids are happy at school and he was looking forward to the weekend with his family. Now he’s just heard that his wife is terminally ill; he needs to take some time off to make plans for her care. Will his organisation understand? Will they empathise with his unexpected situation?
Sometimes we can appear to be empathetic by listening to another person’s story, affirming their experiences, or by showing concern through our body language such as we see here with the hand on the shoulder. And yet seconds later, we can undermine their wellbeing with hasty words or decisions that will affect them forever. Bad news is never easy to accept no matter how rational it sounds or how gently it is presented to us.
Empathy takes emotions and experience more seriously, to a depth of understanding and awareness that involves a greater personal engagement and risk. It reflects God’s loving gaze back at us and unites us in both the pain and joy of the other as if they were our own.
It is in this sense of radical solidarity that we become more connected to each other and to God. Then in realising more profoundly our need for each other and God, we become more truly what we were created to image and be.
We cannot see the faces of both the woman and the man on the right, perhaps they are crying in sympathy with the man in the centre while he tries to stay strong. Or if they have just fired him, then are they gritting their teeth as they wait for this awkward meeting to be over? Forgetting how they might feel if they were in his shoes.
Perhaps, if it is bad news they are giving to this man, they might be weary from having to do this on a regular basis as part of their jobs in a medical or legal context. After this, will they go home to reflect on new careers which don’t create as much pain for others quite so often?
When we lose sight of other people’s emotions, we not only isolate ourselves from them but from our innate goodness that can support them at critical times. And sadly, the more isolated we become, the harder it is for others to show us real empathy when we need it most.
Question and Action point:
Reflect on whether this understanding of empathy helps you appreciate your relationships with other people and with God.
Discuss how the reality of God as rich in empathy might help a Christian deepen their faith or assist someone who does not believe to come to belief.
May the depth of Edith Stein’s thought,
and her spirit of unremitting enquiry,
inspire in us a passion for the truth
and zeal for the proclamation of the gospel,
for the mutual understanding and benefit
of all your sons and daughters.
Suggested further reading for going deeper
Matheson Russell, Husserl. A Guide for the Perplexed, Continuum, 2007.
Edith Stein, Life in a Jewish Family 1891-1916, The Collected Works of Edith Stein vol. I, Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1986.
Edith Stein, Knowledge and Faith, The Collected Works of Edith Stein vol. VIII, Institute of Carmelite Studies, 2000.