The Encouraging Win of Empathy
“The late author Leo Buscaglia tells of being asked to judge a contest to find the most caring child. The boy who won related a story about his elderly next-door neighbor. The man had just lost his wife of many decades. The 4-year-old heard him sobbing in his backyard and decided to investigate. The boy crawled onto the neighbor’s lap and just sat there while the man grieved. It was strangely comforting to the gentleman. The boy’s mom later asked her son what he had said to the neighbor. ‘Nothing,’ the little guy said. ‘I just helped him cry’” (BRAIN RULES FOR BABY, p. 80).
God created us to be relational creatures. We are formed by relationships and made for relationships. I’ve written about this before, so you can go here to dive further into what I mean. God gave us brains, bodies, and souls designed for connection. As it turns out, this thing called empathy is the bridge that connects emotional experiences between people. It is a key to relating well with others in healthy, life-giving ways.
EMPATHY A CONTROVERSY?
For the October 15th edition of The Atlantic, Susan Lanzoni wrote A Short History of Empathy. She explains some of the current controversy about the value of empathy. What she does not address is how animated the controversy is in Christian circles, particularly among the Reformed. I’ve read some of the anti-empathy articles. In my opinion, they are poorly reasoned tomes reminiscent of fear-based piety found in fundamentalist and cult-like groups.
Suffice it to say, one has the freedom to believe (1) empathy is sinful or wicked, (2) the word is not found in the Bible and therefore, supposedly anti-biblical, and (3) empathy is essentially counterfeit compassion causing all sorts of spiritual problems in Christ’s Church. I’m just not feeling it. And I’m just not buying it. To have empathy is not an enticement to sin. Indeed, empathy is not a sin. To say it is wrong to use words not found in the Bible is so silly I’m almost speechless. And to claim empathy is counterfeit compassion only shows ignorance of the vast amount of research and material written on the subject. Frankly, I’m beyond weary of the tens of thousands of extra-biblical rules and regulations designed to keep us from sinning, to make us more holy, and to add to Christ’s sufficient compassion for us; compassion clearly exhibited in his life, work, death on the Cross, burial, resurrection, and ascension. If you don’t like empathy, can’t say empathy, or you refuse to empathize, so be it. As for me and my house, we will empathize while basking in the total forgiveness, love, and freedom we have in Christ.
Now, for a more positive take on the subject…
WHERE DID THIS IDEA OF EMPATHY COME FROM?
In The Atlantic piece, Ms. Lanzoni goes on to say,
The English word “empathy” came into being only about a century ago as a translation for the German psychological term Einfühlung, literally meaning ‘feeling-in.’ English-speaking psychologists suggested a handful of other translations for the word, including ‘animation,’ ‘play,’ ‘aesthetic sympathy,’ and ‘semblance.’ But in 1908 two psychologists from Cornell and the University of Cambridge suggested ‘empathy’ for Einfühlung, drawing on the Greek ‘em’ for ‘in’ and ‘pathos’ for ‘feeling,’ and it stuck.
At the time the term was coined, empathy was not primarily a means to feel another person’s emotion, but the very opposite: To have empathy, in the early 1900s, was to enliven an object, or to project one’s own imagined feelings onto the world.
By mid-century, empathy’s definition began to shift as some psychologists turned their attention to the science of social relations. In 1948, the experimental psychologist Rosalind Dymond Cartwright, in collaboration with her sociologist mentor, Leonard Cottrell, conducted some of the first tests measuring interpersonal empathy. In the process, she deliberately rejected empathy’s early meaning of imaginative projection, and instead emphasized interpersonal connection as the core of the concept.
Serious interest in the mind and soul, motivations and behaviors goes back thousands of years. The philosophical question about the connection of the mind and body became a hot topic with philosophers (e.g. Descartes), physicians, and some scientists in 1700s Europe. Kendra Cherry’s article explains how the field of psychology came to be:
During the mid-1800s, a German physiologist named Wilhelm Wundt was using scientific research methods to investigate reaction times. His book published in 1874, ‘Principles of Physiological Psychology,’ outlined many of the major connections between the science of physiology and the study of human thought and behavior. He later opened the world’s first psychology lab in 1879 at the University of Leipzig. This event is generally considered the official start of psychology as a separate and distinct scientific discipline.
The big question these individuals were trying to answer was, “What makes people tick?” Informed by their view of the world (the universe is like a big clock and people are like machines) these physiologists and scientists wanted to apply their scientific methods to understanding people. Some were nominal Christians. Others were not Christian at all. Most found the answers from the Bible lacking and too simplistic. Others were woefully ignorant of what the Bible says about relationships and people’s souls. Granted, the application of the scientific method to how people think, behave, and relate is rooted in non-Christian and even anti-Christian worldviews. For a variety of reasons, conservative and fundamentalist Christians try to reject all such studies, dismissing them as worldly or Satanic. That was my view for about ten years. That’s their prerogative.
Nevertheless, much of what psychologists, sociologists, and other -ologists have observed has helped to define and describe aspects of human thinking and action. Out of this era grew more and more theories about the mind and behaviors. Psychology focused on the human psyche while sociology focused on the human collective. Like all disciplines, they developed words and definitions because old terms were inadequate or because there were no terms at all. In fact, that is how all cultures’ vocabularies come about.
By the way, even the Apostle Paul came up with words because the Koine Greek did not have terminology sufficient to explain the believer’s life in union with Christ.
Psychology has largely explored people’s negative thoughts and behaviors. They attempt to offer hope by eradicating, subduing, or helping people change those negative things. In the early 1900s, several psychologists questioned if giving all the attention to negative perspectives and actions was really all that healthy or helpful. They developed what is now known as positive psychology. You might want to read a bit of that history in Renata Sandor’s article. Again, these people have been working to understand the human mind and behavior in order to offer hope, healing, and resolution to the problem of disordered lives, pain, and evil.
It is at this point you need to know my perspective on this subject. First, after learning to reject all things psychology and holding onto a purist view of the Bible and Christian life (only the Bible has anything of legitimate value to say about life), my family and I waded through the fundamentalist swamp. We sought answers to any number of things but were dissatisfied with their simplistic answers, like all of life is boiled down to sin, evil, and the devil. I still agree that our human problems grow out of our sin nature. I just do not agree that is the answer for the reason to all our challenges. During seminary, my theological persuasion switched from a fundamentalist version of Baptist Dispensational Evangelicalism to a fundamentalist version of Reformed Covenantal Presbyterianism. Frankly, I was happier and freer in the Evangelical camp though fundamentalism (moralism, legalism, Pharisaism) of both styles has been painfully oppressive.
Second, my family and I were seriously challenged on nearly every front because of the difficulties our adopted child had. Yes, the experiences certainly caused me to reconsider and explore other reasons and resolutions than “You are a sinner. Your wife is a sinner. Your child is a worse sinner. Deal with it.” You can read part of our story here. Through heart-wrenching circumstances, we had to receive help from a social worker and psychologist. Their descriptions for Reactive Attachment Disorder’s profile fit our child to a T. To understand what we and thousands of parents have gone through with a developmentally traumatized child, read this resource or see the dozens of articles and videos on the subject at the Institute for Attachment and Child Development. It was an eye-opener for us and extremely helpful. My purist perspective began to crumble. My wife and I had to seriously rethink so many things, including psychology.
Third, the transition over the past fifteen years continues. I still wrestle with how psychology fits or does not fit with what the Bible says. I believe the Bible is the ultimate solution to the problem of interpersonal relationships because that is the underlying theme of the Bible: How do we relate with God and with one another? The fundamental answer is found in the God-Man Jesus Christ: his person, life, work, death, burial, resurrection and ascension. At the most important level is how Jesus makes us right with God and with one another. This is the Gospel, the good news. To dive deeper, explore this question: Do You Know God and His Good News?
Yet, while fiercely loyal to Jesus Christ and his incredibly great news, I find the latest research in the field of psychiatry and the brain quite helpful. They explain so much of the inner workings of the mind (body and brain). Yes, our child needs Jesus but in the meantime, is there not a way to help her to some degree, to relate well with her, to find temporal solutions to brain disorders? Sure. I believe that some elements of psychology and psychiatry can offer help, albeit limited, and definitely temporal in the eternal scheme of things.
Years ago, an elder we knew dismissed any psychological or physiological basis for mental disorders, such as schizophrenia. So did other elders and many church members. All mental problems were sin issues. Ironically, he had recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and people were using that as an excuse for his change in behaviors. When people tell me there is no such thing as mental illness or disorders, it’s all a matter of the person’s sinful behaviors, I ask how they explain the personality changes people go through when they have Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Lyme Disease, or Traumatic Brain Injury. Still, some say those diseases only reveal how wicked the hearts of those people are. Oh brother. Is your stubborn refusal to investigate facts due to your sin of pride or could it be one of the many reasons why people won’t understand?
The latest studies of the brain can and do inform us about why and how people think, behave, and relate the way they do. Surprisingly, most of the prescriptions for help tend to dovetail with what the Bible says. For example, treatment modalities for RAD (now known as Developmental Trauma Disorder) call for relational connection first, listening well, remaining calm during their angry storms, showing genuine underserved kindness, relating to them with mercy, grace and love, and much more. Sadly, these were never the fundamentalists’ suggested ways for dealing with our child. By misapplying Scriptures, the only answers they gave us was our youngster was a really bad and defiant sinner and we needed to rebuke, scold, punish, spank, and “jail” our child until the will and defiant spirit was broken. That would definitely open the way for God to work. In reality, those “biblical” techniques only made our relationship with our child worse. Much worse!
Okay, how does this bit of a rabbit chase speak to empathy?
Of the many helpful, healthy things we learned through hours of counseling, training, reading books and journals, and much more, was how to be with our child not against our child, how to connect before we’d correct, how to seek to understand rather than reject her out of hand. It was indeed a paradigm shift, completely different than the so-called “biblical” way of relating. A big part of our new counseling boiled down to this: develop empathy. If we could somehow understand her perspective (though we did not often agree with it) and how she was feeling about life and us and others, we could find points of meaningful connection. Sympathy and empathy helped us get it. It helped us understand her as best as we possibly could.
In the past fifteen years, we have acquired new words with new concepts. At least, new to us. Now, I don’t really give a rat’s adenoids what word you assign to what we learned about being with and working to understand our child’s thinking and feelings. Call it mind melding if you want. But the term empathy is good enough. In the past twenty years, there has been a significant amount of research done on the existence, validity, applications, and implications for empathy. Contrary to the Christian critics of empathy, I’ve read nothing that says empathy is the answer to all of humanity’s relational problems. What you will find is how empathy is a gateway or even a condition for genuine compassion. And compassion is very important because, “What the world needs now is love, sweet love” (3 Opinions 3:16). (Note: I do believe there is a difference between our human compassion and the compassion of Christ to us and through believers. But that’s for another discussion.)
If empathy is healthy and helpful, just what is it? We will answer that in Part 2