I was invited to join a panel of professionals at Mass Bay Community College to discuss the subject of empathy before an audience of academics and college administrators. It was fascinating to explore how different people express empathy, and why. The panel included a psychology professor from Mass Bay, a high school guidance counselor, a minister who teaches at a university and maintains a pulpit presence, and me.
There was little disagreement about defining empathy. We all subscribed to the notion that empathy is viscerally feeling what another feels, as opposed to sympathy. The main difference is that when you have sympathy, you are not experiencing another’s feeling. Instead, you can understand what the person is feeling. We identify empathically when “our entire consciousness is projected into another person, so the feelings that inhere in others act upon us.”
Theresa Wiseman, a nursing scholar, noted four attributes of empathy:
Perspective taking refers to walking in the other person’s shoes and trying to think like them.
Staying out of judgment means not making comments that infer their emotions or response was invalid or wrong. Such as, “that’s stupid. Why did you get so upset?”
Recognizing the emotion is looking within yourself and identifying that feeling the other person could be feeling. It’s okay to check it out with them ask if you’ve got it. For example, you could say, “Sounds like you are feeling sad.”
Communication refers to being expressive about understanding their emotion and validating them.
The ability to connect empathically with others—to feel with them, to care about their well-being, and to act with compassion—is critical to our lives, helping us to get along, work more effectively, and thrive as a society.
As I thought about empathy before, during, and after the presentation, I came to feel an enormous sense of sadness and despair about the world we’re living in right now. Empathy is in short supply. Instead of listening to others and attempting to enter their concern, we seek ways to cut them off and shut them down. As Stephen Covey famously said, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
Our tradition teaches us to listen carefully to those who are dispossessed, those who have no voice. We are enjoined to look out for the widow and the orphan and the strangers in our midst. God tells us that we are responsible, that we must do something to ameliorate social inequities. And more: God says we have a special obligation to engage in the act of reaching out to the Other. We know the heart of the stranger, because, as God reminds us 36 times in the Torah, “we were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
When we forget that once we were dispossessed, abandoned, cruelly treated, and persecuted by various governments and peoples, we lose our Jewish spark. When we fail to engage, to empathize, we fall in with the darkest impulses of humanity. And, God knows, there is so much darkness in the world.
With apologies to Burt Bachrach, what the world needs now is not love, it’s empathy. We don’t have to love those who are disenfranchised or needy or broken. But we must affirm their humanity, feel their pain, and without judgment, express our solidarity with them as fellow human beings.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand is a living example of how to respond with empathy in a highly charged atmosphere of mistrust, contempt, fear, and hatred. She has shown the world what an empathic leader can do. Wearing a black headscarf was a beautiful, empathic gesture to the Muslim community. Refusing to use the name of the killer was a powerful empathic response to the nation of New Zealand, affirming citizens’ feelings about the criminal by refusing to popularize him for other deranged mass murderers. Banning military-style semiautomatic weapons and assault rifles was a powerful step in responding empathically to the overwhelming sentiment for such an act by the vast majority of Kiwis.
Prime Minister Ardern reminds us that empathy is more than a series of kindnesses. Our tradition reminds us that, “We were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This is not just a throwaway line. It’s not just a Passover topic. It is a call to action.