Empathy for All: A Word on Empathy by Rev. Jonah Koetke

Rev. Jonah Koetke

I am walking down the street. To my right I see a homeless man, reaching a cup out, asking if I have any change. I avert my gaze and keep walking. What happened here? Here I am, someone who actively tries to do good in the world, yet here in this moment, I so acutely failed.

What happened in this example, and in so many everyday interactions, was a failure of empathy. Empathy is a term that often seems to be ill defined in popular press, or confused with related terms such as sympathy. In psychology, empathy is defined as having some sort of emotional concern for another, often involving aspects such as experiencing what another is experiencing, trying to understand what another is thinking, and invoking some prosocial concern (Zaki and Ochsner, 2012; Zaki, 2014).

Empathy is without doubt, a critical touchstone in how we interact with those around us. In psychological theory, having empathy has been linked to reducing bias towards those of cultural out-groups (Batson et al, 1997), and to the possibility of true Altruism (Batson and Shaw, 1991).

If empathy is so important and critical, why does it sometimes fail? I started this piece with one example of a failure of empathy. One unfortunate reason for failing to empathize is refusing to see another as a human being. In the example, I subconsciously avoided eye contact with the homeless man. Perhaps I was running late, or I did not wish to have an interaction at the time. However, I also was avoiding cues that would have promoted viewing this other person as a human equal.  When we fail to view another as a human, we have failed the challenge of empathizing. A seminal study in social psychology examined a similar phenomenon. Researchers presented seminary students with a task of giving a talk on the Good Samaritan. However, the students were informed that they were running late for this talk and had to walk across campus quickly. On the way across campus, participants encountered a homeless man (actually a paid actor). The more the students were in a rush, the less they helped (Darley and Batson, 1973).

So, what are we to do?  Empathy is such a critical part of caring and loving those around us. However, the modern world seems to push us away from taking the time to do just that. We are surrounded by things catching our attention and pulling us away from others. We are pushed into different social groups that prevent us from even trying to empathize. We are told it is “Us versus Them.” Liberals vs. Conservatives. Americans vs. Immigrants. Religious vs. Atheists. We are in a cultural situation that makes it easy to avoid empathizing and seeing others as truly human.

Here there is actually some good news. Recent work shows that the more one believes that empathy is malleable and able to change and extend, the more empathetic individuals are likely to be (Schumann et al, 2014). What does this mean for members of a church or of a community? It indicates that it is not that we are unable to empathize with those who are different from us, rather it is that we are not willing to. In order to use this critical skill, we have to believe that we can use it. We have to use effort to reach outside of our bubbles, into the scary world beyond. This is where empathy is most useful, and most difficult. We must purposely seek to view those around us as human beings with thoughts, dreams, and dignity. We must work to empathize, even when it is difficult. We must work to empathize even when those around us do not, or actively refuse to. This is the duty of every member of a society. This is the duty of every human being.