“… the capacity to empathize with others, i.e., not just to feel for oneself, but to feel with and for others. This is something that education ought to cultivate and that citizens ought to bring to politics.”
– McCollough 19921
Empathy is what allows us to feel what others are feeling. It allows us to experience sadness for a character on a screen or be emotionally touched when we see our students succeed. Empathy, therefore, helps us to authentically connect with those around us. So, when I observe irreparable and, at times, violent divisions amongst America’s citizenry, God stirs my soul towards a more interpersonal reality—a reality that Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke so eloquently about: “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”
But, how can one rise like this? Fortunately, neuroscientists and psychologists have been working on this topic. Their work has led to new understandings about how empathy actually gets processed through the brain,2 the necessary psychological and neurological conditions required for someone to feel empathy,3 and the predisposition that humans have towards empathy.4
These findings are important to our present conversation for two reasons. First, it highlights how empathy arises from the interaction between the world outside one’s mind (i.e., the social environment) and the inner world within one’s mind (i.e., the brain’s neurology and the mind’s psychology). Christians would also include the soul in that interaction (the spiritual component of the self). Hearing this should be exciting to educators because it maintains that by generating the appropriate conditions, they can alter their students’ neurological, psychological, and spiritual make-ups, increasing their ability to empathize. The second reason these findings are important is that they all highlight the necessity for empathy to occur between more than one subject. Empathy, by definition, is intersubjective. As such, it requires individuals to be operating in relationship with one another. Classrooms can offer such relational environments. Consequently, based on such essential conditions, it would appear as if teachers are uniquely positioned to teach, practice, and augment their students’ ability to empathize.
However, students experience other environments besides the classroom. My fear, therefore, is that any minimal or haphazard instruction of empathy will not be enough to counteract the cultural tsunami of egotism that exists. We live in a world characterized by hyper-self-centeredness. Take, for example, the ubiquitousness of selfies, personal YouTube channels, Twitter accounts, along with the constant desire to gain as many followers and “likes” as possible. More impactfully, such self-centeredness seems to have spilled over into other areas of our lives. Two areas that seem to have been influenced by egocentrism are politics and inter-racial discourse. On these two fronts, our country seems to be experiencing intense turmoil ignited by the inability to empathize with another’s position. Time and time again, I have noticed that one of the main catalysts in contemporary rhetoric is the demand for “the other” to get to know and understand me, rather than for me to get to know and understand the other.
Nonetheless, both Christian and secular positions continue to tout the value of empathy. In the Bible, for example, one can find over a hundred verses that speak about some form of empathy.5 One of the clearest examples is found in Romans 12:15 where Paul writes, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” Interestingly, these words are written within a section of Romans specifically designed to exhort believers to become “living sacrifices” (Romans 12:1).
Empathy also plays a central role within a secular worldview. In fact, empathy appears to be so important to one’s flourishing, that the Making Care Common Project6 website at The Harvard School of Education reads, “…empathy is at the heart of what it means to be human. It’s a foundation for acting ethically, for good relationships of many kinds, for loving well, and for professional success. And it’s key to preventing bullying and many other forms of cruelty.”
So, when I was asked to write a blog for SavED by Grace about ways in which we can reduce the racial and political disparities that exist, I thought no further than to share about empathy training and its need within our schools.
Reflection with God:
- How do I experience empathy with my students, parents, and colleagues?
- How do my students experience empathy with each other?
- What actions can I take at home, in the classroom, and in my community to increase empathic understanding?
- Meditate with God and write a prayer about your desire to have more empathy.