According to my first Google search hit if the term: “Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position. Definitions of empathy encompass a broad range of emotional states.” I am pretty happy with this as a working definition and is the one I will run with from now on. No doubt, practicing empathy includes all those things that are included in the following image and maybe many more besides.
It was only later in life I came across the term “empathy”, and it occurs to me, just like “tolerance”, this is a quality especially valued in today’s culture. While there are many other things, I think it is a good thing to be e.g. kind, truthful, diligent and dutiful etc., it is good to be empathetic too. I speak as much to my self as any one else when I say the world needs more empathy. Many of the human conflicts we see, starting on our own doorsteps, is as much down to a mutual lack of empathy. Now I am moving / have moved into the old and decrepit phase of my life and now know how it feels, I can kick myself for my lack of empathy in my younger years for older people as I saw their foibles and limitations. Looking back over my life, I recognised I have wrongly behaved negatively toward too many people due to my ignorance of their frame of reference. While I have experienced that negativity, I cannot justify my behaviour.
As I find myself in deep water yet again with people strongly disagreeing with me and me them, over one or other of the many major divisive issues of the day, with the temptation on both sides to write each other off, I can see why empathy can be a good thing. It is not that we have to agree with or be supportive of what someone says or does but if we had more of an inkling of why they say and do what they say and do, we may go some way to establish peace and understanding and may even find our way to agreeing common ground whereby we can agree and disagree agreeably. By knowing where the other person comes from, we are part way to resolve our differences. While it won’t necessarily end up in sharing views it could lead to mutual respect. I suggest this is particularly applicable when we deal with those in a weaker position to us. At a grass roots level, empathy becomes a factor when people suffer and grieve and an empathetic response makes a much needed difference.
I have little doubt that possessing empathy has practical and positive connotations in dealing with the people we encounter day by day and even more with people we don’t encounter e.g. when we engage and sometimes spar on social media, each trying to make a strongly and often sincerely held point of view that the other may not agree with. Sometimes that is unavoidable but having upset many and perhaps stumbled a few, I can see how in my own dealings that choosing my words carefully, or sometimes saying nothing, can be a good thing. It a good reason why empathy is an important quality as we try to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes and figure out their position. I might also suggest that empathy ought not be a reason for ignoring bad behaviour or attitude or error in others (providing we deal first with our own bad behaviour). While it might help to understand why they behave as they do, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t confront such behaviour.
I tried to find what the Bible said about empathy but drew a blank insofar the word is never used. However, that does not say that this is an alien concept, biblically speaking. I came across the words “Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others” Philippians 2:3,4. The context was a message for the church and a call for humility, to look out for one another and honour the other before oneself, just as Jesus did. We need to have the mind of Christ. I suggest it is also to do with “love thy neighbour as thyself” that we are called to do. Surely that includes empathising with him / her.