Empathy Is Not A Dirty Word

Of all the things I teach my students, the most difficult is empathy.

Why do I teach empathy in English class?  Well, there’s no section on “empathy” in the syllabus, per se, but it’s part and parcel of our study nonetheless.  We learn about it in the process of learning about academic arguments, because to a degree, empathy – the ability to identify with someone else’s feelings – is a part of academic argument.

Long story short: if you want to craft an argument that appeals to and engages your audience, you need to really understand deeply where they’re coming from and what their perspective might be.

But my students struggle with that concept.  The students who want to write an essay about gun control really don’t want to understand the point of view of a gun owner or a hunter, or vice versa.  The Catholics don’t want to put themselves in Protestants’ shoes – or vice versa. They all want to keep other people’s ideas at arms’ length, as though letting them come too close might taint them.

So when I teach them how to consider the matter of audience in their essay-writing, my speech almost always goes like this: you don’t have to believe what your audience believes.  You don’t have to agree with them, or change your mind to be like them.  But what you do have to do is try to understand them, and try to put yourself in their shoes.  By imagining what they might be thinking and feeling, you’ll understand how to offer a more effective argument tailored to their concerns.

I sometimes wish I could teach the same to believers, and remember it myself.

It’s easy  – especially for long-time believers – to get caught up not just in our own individual perspectives formed by our own individual cultures, but also to get caught up in the Christian perspective.  We see the world in a very particular way, through the lens of sin and death, restoration and redemption, Christ’s loving sacrifice and humanity’s fall.  Those fundamentals (ideally) inform everything that we say and do.  They also sometimes make it very, very difficult for us to connect to people who don’t see the world that way.

If I’m honest, I think it’s because we’re a little afraid.

We don’t want to think about why the atheist feels the way that he does.  We don’t want to try on the perspective of a secular Jewish teenager or a Muslim grandfather or a Buddhist, childless married couple when we’re attempting to serve them or share the Lord with them.  Maybe we think it dishonors God to do so.  Some of us would go so far as to say that we couldn’t think that way – we would never! – because we are Christians, and our lives are so inextricably tied up with who we are in Christ that we literally can’t fathom anything else.

But if nothing else, you can listen.  You can listen to people when they say they are worried, or sad, or scared, or angry, and listen to why, and imagine what it might be like to feel those things.  You can hear them talk about what they believe, or don’t believe, and why.  You can put yourself in people’s shoes, with their experiences and their spiritual toolbox, and try to have an understanding for the life they’re living and the things they’re feeling.

The problem is that we don’t often practice this.  Instead, I – and I imagine many of us – look at people and try to imagine what their lives might be like…if I was the one living it.  But I’m not them.  I’m not the one living that life.  And thinking about what I would do in their situation isn’t empathy.  Empathy is an attempt to share someone else’s perspective: to understand why they think what they think, feel what they feel, or do what they do.

Doing this won’t fundamentally change who we are.  It doesn’t dishonor God or your own identity or feelings.  It doesn’t make you not-a-Christian.  It isn’t an implicit way of saying I think your way is better than my way.  It’s saying, instead: I want to know what you think.  Who you are.  How you feel.  When we engage in empathy we get closer to a real understanding of someone; we get a peek into who they are and what their soul is like.  And it is from that beginning that we can build a relationship with someone, and also – perhaps most importantly – understand how it is that we can serve them and show them the love of Christ.

When you really think about other people’s experiences and ideas and feelings, it helps you to serve them better.  It helps you to see where they feel need, where they’re confused, what they want, what will help them – not just what you think they need, or want, or will help, or what you would need or want or think would help.  God gave us ears that could listen and hearts to understand not so that we could ignore everyone around us and go on doing for them what would make us feel better in their position, but so that we would help them.

Serving is our business in the world, and empathy is a natural part of that.  May we grant it freely so that we can better discover the paths through which we might guide others to Christ.




2 thoughts on “Empathy Is Not A Dirty Word

  1. Yes, yes, yes! These thoughts have also been on my mind. I’ve recently come to the conclusion that many falsely think that empathy means you are agreeing with another’s view and changing your mind on an issue. No, no, no! Great post.


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