"Can I see another's woe, and not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another's grief, and not seek for kind relief?
Can I see a falling tear, and not feel my sorrow's share?
Can a father see his child weep, nor be with sorrow filled?
Can a mother sit and hear infant groan an infant fear?
No, no, never can it be! Never, never can it be."
I feel your pain. But why and how? Why should we enter into the feelings of the other? How can we feel another's hurt? Everyone we meet is in pain and in need of our kindness; yet no matter how hard we try, we cannot fully know what others are experiencing. And they cannot completely know what we experience.
Some of us wear our feelings on our sleeves, and those about us know very well when we are hurting. Others, however, are good at concealing their hurts and presenting a self that seems unflappable. We mistakenly believe they don't need help. But they do - we do - all of us do. Whatever the case, whomever we meet, however we feel, it behooves us to be just a little kinder than necessary.
Empathy, feeling the feelings of another, is at the core of kindness, is the irrational root of ethics, is the central ingredient in human compassion: Compassion comes from the Latin com, meaning together, and pati, meaning to suffer - to suffer together. In German the word is mitleid - feeling the misfortune of the other. There are times when our only response to another's pain is to share it. "Sorrow shared is sorrow halved," as an old German saying puts it. Unitarian Universalists seek to create caring communities in their congregations, a mutual ministry in grappling with life's vicissitudes. We realize that none of us can navigate life's treacherous waters alone.
I am afraid, however, we are witnessing the eclipse of empathy - our sense of fellow-feeling is being dulled. We see it in the compassion fatigue that attends yet another international catastrophe when we are once more asked to help. We see it in the indifference of the public toward the poor. I had breakfast last Tuesday at the Southeast Ecumenical Ministry Food Cupboard, where I learned of the dwindling number of drivers for people in need, and the leveling off of church support alongside the increasing need for food assistance as the new welfare law gets into full gear.
We see the crisis of empathy in the crudities that mark life on the streets, in the malls, even on the phone and over the Internet; yes, sometimes even in church. We see it in the struggles of families to stay intact.
Civil rights lawyer Kenneth Clark once asked, "How is it possible to study a slum objectively?" How can we observe the needs of our near neighbors without wanting to help? While there are rational elements in our answers, basically our response is an emotional one. But empathy is never easy.
Psychologist William James once told the story of a Russian noblewoman who sat in the theater weeping over the suffering of a fictitious hero, while her coachman sat outside, literally freezing to death as he waited for her to return. This case of misplaced empathy is not unlike today's fascination, for example with TV's hospital drama Chicago Hope, accompanied by indifference to the plight of millions of real people who have no health coverage. We may agree with La Rochefoucould's aphorism, "We all have strength enough to endure the misfortunes of others."
While we all have the capacity for moral indifference, there are plentiful illustrations of empathy. It is part of our human nature, the very basis of our altruism. Infants cannot distinguish between themselves and others and sometimes react to another's distress as if they, themselves, had been hurt. But by about 18 months they can distinguish between "me" and "not me," still assuming that others' feelings will be similar to their own.
That is why "if Jason sees his mother cry out in pain, he may fetch his bottle to make her feel better." Later we are able to put ourselves in others' shoes. When child development researchers asked an 8-year-old boy named Adam about doing that, he replied, "Oh yes, what you do is, you forget everything else that's in your head, and then you make your mind into their mind. Then you know how they're feeling, so you know how to help them."
And there are homely examples in our culture that empathy is not dead. Take this intergenerational encounter. At a bus stop an elderly woman sat waiting for her bus, when a fourteen-year-old on a skateboard with his baseball cap turned around with the bill in back, skated gracefully by. He buzzed past her once, then twice. When he came by a third time, he accidentally knocked the woman's newspaper out of her hands. She said angrily, "Oh, why don't you grow up!" He glided down to the corner of the block, where he stood talking with his buddy. The two of them kept looking back over their shoulders at the woman. She hesitated for a moment, then rolled up her paper, tucked it under her arm, and walked into the street, motioning to him. "Won't you come here?" she called. "I want to talk to you." Very reluctantly, he skated over to her, turned his cap around with the bill in front, and said, "Yeah?" She said, "What I meant to say was that I was afraid that I might get hurt. I apologize for what I did say." His face lit up, and he said, "How cool!"
The woman apparently understood how a boy might feel being publicly chastised for careless skating. She tried to make amends by explaining why she said what she did and apologizing for it. The young man, who should himself have apologized, was no doubt surprised that any adult would apologize to him. Still, he was taken by her words and uttered the most laudatory expression known to the younger set, "how cool."
A more dramatic illustration is given by Joseph Campbell in conversation with Bill Moyers. "In Hawaii....there is a place called the Pali, where the trade winds from the north come rushing through the great ridge of mountains. People like to go up there to get their hair blown about or sometimes to commit suicide - you know, something like jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge.
"One day, two policemen were driving up the Pail road when they saw, just beyond the railing that keeps the care from rolling over, a young man preparing to jump. The police car stopped, and the policeman on the right leaped out to grab the man but caught him just as he jumped, and he was himself being pulled over when the second cop arrived in time to pull the two of them back.
"Do you realize what had suddenly happened to that policeman who had given himself to death with that unknown youth? Everything else in his life had dropped off - his duty to his family, his duty to his job, his duty to his own life - all of his wishes and hopes for his lifetime had just disappeared. He was about to die.
"Later a newspaper reporter asked him, 'Why didn't you let go? You would have been killed.' And his reported answer was, 'I couldn't let go. If I had let that young man go, I couldn't' have lived another day of my life!'"
Empathy comes from a feeling of deep sympathy for another and is accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the pain or remove its cause. Sympathy - feeling pity - turns into empathy - feeling with - and finally issues in action to serve the needs of the neighbor. How this sometimes plays out is fascinating.
Empathy I believe is the single most important tool in pastoral counseling. My first temptation in counseling is to fix it - to solve a person's problem or to at least help them solve it. I hurt for them and I want to relieve their hurt, which will help me relieve my hurt. What I discover, however, is that seldom can I do it. What I can do is simply to care - to empathize with the feelings of the other. This experience itself is liberating for both of us. And often, it is enough.
How do we develop an acute sense of empathy? Alongside the empathy built into the structure of our human nature it is the persistent power of selfishness. The two forces - concern for other and regard for self - struggle in us constantly. Empathy is grown by an act of will - stretching the spirit to identify with the other's feelings, trying to overcome our very stubborn ego. We make a conscious attempt to identify with the other and thus avoid spiritual and moral claustrophobia. But the danger for many of us is that we will empathize too strongly and lose our rational powers. I know my own tendency to be overcome by emotion, by zealousness to the cause of justice, sympathy for those who hurt.
I tend to take to heart the words of human rights advocate, Archbishop Dom Helder Camera: "Do not be indifferent to anyone's problems. Make the sufferings and humiliations of all your brothers and sisters your own. Live on a global scale, or better still, take the whole universe."
That's a rather tall order. So, on the one hand we face the danger of indifference - of being callous toward our neighbors in need. And, on the other, we may so empathize with their plight that we are overwhelmed by it.
The capacity to empathize, then, enables us to enter into the feelings of the other without being overwhelmed by those feelings. We try to heed the wisdom of the Native American prayer: "Great Spirit, grant that I may not criticize my neighbors until I have walked a mile in their moccasins."
Last Sunday afternoon at the Shipping Dock Theater I saw Philip Hayes Dean's play, Paul Robeson, about the African-American athlete/lawyer/civil rights advocate/singer/actor who was victimized during the McCarthy period for his unpopular views. Perhaps I should say I not so much saw as experienced the drama, a two-man cast, protagonist and pianist, in an intimate theater.
Early in the production Robeson, looking above the audience to the imagined figure of his deceased father, had a one-way conversation with "Pop." I soon was wiping tears from my eyes - since that is what I called my own father, who would have been 100 last month. Now I am "Pop" to my two sons.
Somehow in that moment the whole poignancy of human life came flooding into me. I was hit by such an emotional jolt that something caught in my throat and I began coughing. I wasn't sure I would make it through. Happily, I did - and relished the experience.
What explained my reaction? Why was I so moved? The actor was able to elicit from me a feeling of empathy. I was no longer observing a play - I was feeling - or trying to feel - what Paul Robeson felt. I identified with his plight. There seemed little space between us. I recognized our common humanity.
The dramatic interchange of Robeson and "Pop" reminded me of my own experience as a father and illustrates how hard - and how necessary - it is to empathize with the other. Years ago my older son and I had had a bad day. Needing to work through my own feelings, I wrote these words:
I sent him to bed tonight with a perfunctory kiss because I had not been pleased with him that day. But more, I had work to do and loving takes time - time away from work, and words and worlds. It had been a day of raised voices - his and mine - of arguments never resolved, and orders not obeyed, and words of blame - and little of love. A vicious cycle and who to break it?
If only he would....if only she would....The words, I suppose are sounded from sun-up in China to sun-down in America, from equatorial jungles to frozen igloos - hard words, words of judgment. They are spoken or thought between husband and wife, lover and lover, parent and child, friend and friend, neighbor and neighbor.
The vicious violence of the spirit needs no whip to sear the spirit, needs only a thoughtless word or unintended deed to cast its wreckage on the landscape of the soul. Tomorrow's dawn brings with it another day for gentleness in loving, as if today's harshness had never been (at least it may be forgiven and forgotten). May it find me in a mood for gentleness, for there is only one to break the vicious cycle, only one whose words can set the tone, whose actions can clear the way for gentleness in loving. May the next good-night be said in celebration of the day and anticipation of the night. Forgive me, my son.
"Can I see another woe, and not be in sorrow too? No, no, never can it be! Never, never, can it be."