The Gift of Empathy

empathyRecently in the news we have been reading the reports on Sir Philip Green who has been enjoying himself on his luxury yacht in the Mediterranean. The account of his stewardship of BHS, which was published on Monday by a parliamentary committee, indicated that his care of the company had been lax at best and cynically exploitative and dishonest at worst. Regardless of the final verdict in this story there was something insensitive in his choosing to be out of the country when the report was published. The company with its 11000 employees and 20000 pensioners has been left in a fairly bad place. We might have expected some immediate positive action on Sir Philip’s part to relieve the plight of these former employees. We are still waiting to hear any words of remorse or genuine regret.

Jesus told a story, not about a man going on holiday to enjoy himself but one going to the temple to make an offering. He like Philip Green had pressing business to attend to but which had been ignored. In both examples there was matter of a brother(s) who had been wronged. ‘First, reconcile with your brother and then make your offering (or go on holiday)’, said Jesus. The situation of a relationship that needs sorting out should always be one that troubles us until we have resolved it. We call this the nagging of our conscience. In Jesus’ example the conscience is telling us that being right with other people is an important issue. When for any reason the conscience does not function well we might be concerned. The reason for a non-functioning conscience probably lies in the same area of a personality dysfunction as a general insensitivity to other people. In other words, as we recognise from experience, there are some people who simply manage to focus so much on their concerns and their entertainment that they can simply push other people away from their minds and from their conscience.

Why are there such people who have a remarkable ability to cavort and enjoy themselves when around them is pain and suffering? We think of the reported words of Queen Marie Antoinette who is said to have responded when told that the common people of France had no bread, ‘let them eat cake’. The story ascribed to the Queen may never have actually happened but it speaks to us of people who live in a cocoon world, detached from the people around them, unable to understand or in any way relate to their concerns. There are plenty of such people living in Britain today but rather than be jealous of people who have more than enough, we should in fact feel sorry for them.

Why do I say this? At the root of excess wealth and extravagance, as Jesus recognised, is often a deformed sensitivity and awareness of others. The ability to enjoy extravagant lifestyles while there is pain and want around takes some effort. Something inside them has been closed down. Whether we call it lack of conscience or insensitivity, it takes a certain panache to pretend that all is well when so often it is not. This is not going to be the beginning of a political rant which suggests that everyone should have the same as everyone else in terms of material wealth. Nevertheless, there are times when the discrepancies of wealth are so great that there is a strong feeling in the gut that something is completely wrong. Normal communications between individuals and groups have broken down. Bonds of normal care and concern for one’s neighbour no longer seem to exist.

A Christian might at this point want to revert to a reflection on the word ‘love’ as being the Christian attitude that can hold people together to prevent the fragmentation of society that excess inequality produces. But there is another word which avoids the potential sentimentality of the word love and that word is empathy. The word empathy is a good word to use in this context because while it includes the idea of love, it also is suggesting practical action by one person on behalf of another. To have empathy implies that one person has attempted to enter into the thought and feeling world of another and based their practical support on the insights thus gained. Empathy is, if you like, skilled love, a love that knows what to do. It makes sure that the love that on offer is not based on the needs of the one who offers it but on the recipient.

The people who find empathy most hard to put into practice are the individuals who are congenitally incapable of reaching out of themselves to other people. These are the same people whose deformed consciences allow them to live in extravagance and excess while those around them have little or nothing. These are the people like Grace Mugabe or Philip Green who seem to have no problem with spending vast sums of money while others, those for whom they have responsibility, suffer and sometimes die. The personality problem that such people have is one we have spoken about often, the Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Such people have limited sensitivity, stunted consciences and an insatiable appetite for wealth, status and power. The most important thing that they lack is the quality we have already mentioned which is empathy. The lack of this quality means that they are condemned to live lives of shallowness and superficiality. Wealth may give them a sense of power and significance but the affliction of NPD will never allow them to remain content with their lot. They will ever be searching for greater and greater sensation, at the same time becoming less and connected with ordinary people.

Thank God for the gift of empathy. May we cultivate it and hold it precious. Through it may we allow ourselves never to be wrenched away from the gift of other people, the people we love and the people for whom we have responsibility. This latter group is a large one as it covers, potentially, the whole of humanity. Through empathy and with empathy may we, however imperfectly, remain connected to the other members of the human race. To have such gift is to have understanding and this is the first stage of the Christian command to love.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

2 thoughts on “The Gift of Empathy

  1. Jesus said it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven, and I don’t think we should get hung up on the strange/comic comparison, but I think what you’ve written is pretty much what he meant as the reason why. And if we are comfortable there is never a reason for our consciences to sleep here in the West because there are always so many desperately poor in this country and around the world. It is a spiritual discipline to be able to grow in empathy and compassion for those in need and to look for ways to do something that we can, even when we cannot respond to every need that we are aware of, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and ashamed of one’s own paltry and often self-protecting response.

  2. I’ve heard it said that Marie Antoinette was puzzled! “So, if there’s no bread in the cupboard, there’s always something else”! Which is a bit different, but as you say, totally detached from what is reality for others. I do think we have a lot of that these days. As for Sir Philip “Greed”, I don’t understand why he had to asset strip BHS, resulting in its going bust and all those people out of work, when he already had billions of pounds. That really is greed. And then taking the pensions as well. That should be illegal. There’s an undertaking made, a promise, about pensions. It’s even in the contract. It should be illegal to remove those funds.

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