Thinking About...Empathy

You know that thing that happens when you encounter a new idea and then everywhere you look you see more examples of it? That has been happening to me around the topic of empathy. Not long ago, I saw this video from researcher Brene Brown:

That 3 minute video alone contains a whole bunch of deep insights about empathy.

But then, on the radio (most likely NPR), I heard someone talking about a collection of essays called The Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison. Quickly Jamison’s book vaulted to the top of my Best Reads of 2014 list. It has caused me to spend a lot of time thinking about empathy.

The title essay of the book recounts Jamison’s experience as a medical actor: getting paid to act as a standardized patient assigned a particular malady to be diagnosed by medical students while cultivating habits of good bedside manner. In that essay Jamison develops a working definition of her titular term: “Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to.”

She goes on to explain, “Empathy comes from the Greek empatheia--em (into) and pathos (feeling).... It suggests you enter another person’s pain as you’d enter another country.” This further definition reminds me of the very first way I understood of empathy, in contradistinction to sympathy. Knowing someone’s pain. Not the same pain, but appreciating the pain nonetheless.


(Photo source)

A rediscovery of empathy has helped me to see that empathy is central to our human-ness. To the extent we desire to connect with other human beings, we should be aware of empathy. As such, empathy is also central to our understanding of Jesus--the True Human.

To apply Jamison’s definition, Jesus’ empathy is exemplified in his entering into our country, taking our pain, and, ultimately, accepting the full pain of the cross. As Hebrews says, “[Jesus] had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest.... For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness.”

And Theologian Donald Macleod, in his book Christ Crucified, explains that the violence of the cross is where “God learned to empathize.” If Jesus, the True Human, embodies empathy in his life and his death then as we are conformed more to His likeness, we ought express empathy ourselves.

There is more to say. As I indicated, empathy is showing up everywhere. Next time I’ll be thinking more about empathy.