In his book Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion, George Thompson, a former police officer, talks about how to keep a conflict from escalating using words. In one chapter he reveals what he feels is the most powerful word in the English language – empathy.
Empathy is the ability to see things through someone else’s eyes, to understand where they are coming from because, in many cases, you’ve been there too. It also something that seems to be lacking in our current political discourse.
As a pastor and teacher, I have been in many counseling situations where empathy is the only strategy that works. As is often the case, the person does not want me to fix anything; they just want to vent and relieve the pressure that has been building.
Empathy is not easy because of the fact we are human, and we are self-centered. I think that’s something that we’re wired with, probably a good trait to have when life comes down to survival of the fittest. To be empathetic, however, is to override our innate programming and put someone else’s needs ahead of our own. It is unnatural, which is why it is difficult.
Any person of any faith knows the golden rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This maxim crosses all religions and all cultures. It is interpreted as altruistic – you do something for someone and expect nothing in return.
From my research I found the empathetic form of this rule is “what you wish upon others, you wish upon yourself.” It reflects the notion of karma, I think, in the sense that if you wish harm upon others it will come back upon you, but our natural self-centeredness gets in the way.
Self-centeredness tells us that we worked hard for what we have, so we resent giving anything to those who, in our opinion, don’t work hard enough. I got mine so you get yours. This philosophy has led to the one of the greatest economic inequalities in history. The New York Times reported recently that “just eight men have the combined wealth as half the human race.”
I wish those who fail to see the inequality would come once a month with me and work a local food pantry and hear the stories. Many a conversation I’ve had with those receiving food begins with, “I never thought I would be doing this today.” A few of the people who get help are working, sometimes two jobs, but can’t afford enough food for their families. Layoffs, expensive medical bills, business shutdowns, financial downturns, increased living costs, stock market crashes, death of a loved one, shattered marriages – disaster is only a heartbeat away for everyone including those who, at least for now, have theirs.
Even those who say they help but choose only a select group of people to help are listening to the voice of self-centeredness. Richard Foster, in his classic book The Celebration of Discipline, writes, “Self-righteous service picks and chooses whom to serve. True service is indiscriminate in its ministry.”
If I choose to live this virtue of empathy then I have to accept that what happens to others happens to me. Poet John Donne once said that “no man is an island” and that “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved with mankind.”
Empathy understands this and speaks to the heart of any person willing to listen. I oppose the immigration restrictions even though they don’t affect me. I am the descendant of an immigrant who lives the freedom he sought. I oppose any religious persecution even though I am not affected by it because I know that this nation was founded on the freedom of religion. I oppose the restriction of any person’s rights no matter where they come from or who they love because any restriction of their rights restricts mine.
Finally, there is one more thing to keep in mind: empathy is not passivity. Sympathy is not the opposite of empathy. Apathy is. To say nothing and do nothing about injustice is the hallmark of self-centeredness. As British philosopher John Stuart Mill once said, “Let not any one pacify his conscience by the delusion that he can do no harm if he takes no part and forms no opinion. Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.”
To me, to be good is to be empathetic. It is the most powerful word – and action – in the English language.