When talking about empathy in Bible, this one verse probably comes to mind before all others.
Luke 6:31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.
If empathy is about being able to see and understand the world from another’s perspective, then a deep understanding and practice of empathy should be a prerequisite for enacting this command.
There are two ways that we can approach this Christian calling. The first and easier of the two requires only that we understand what we want and then providing that for others. For instance, I love pasta. All kinds of pasta. So, I will pasta unto others as I would want others to pasta unto me. But there’s a catch. My wife can’t have gluten. So, if I just pasta unto her all the pastas I love, then she will quickly not love them or me at all.
This kind of action only requires us to reflect upon ourselves. What is it that we want? How do I understand what is good and pleasurable and worth sharing? At its heart, this is still a self-centered approach to loving others because my interests are the center of my actions.
The second kind of approach requires us to reflect on both what we appreciate and the context in which we find ourselves (an awareness of those around us). In this situation, I know that I love pasta when I’m hungry. I see that my wife is hungry and I want to provide her with the same satisfaction I get when someone gives me pasta. But since she can’t have gluten, I know that I need to give her something that will be as delicious and comforting as pasta would be for me.
In this version of the story, I have taken my own desires out of my focus and instead placed her at the center. Now I want to create the same type of joy in her that I experience, but in a way that is specific to her life and preferences.
OK – pasta may be a silly example, so let’s take it up a notch. What about when someone approaches you and asks for some spare change. What do you do? If I simply place myself into their shoes and imagine what it would be like to be in such a dire situation that I would ask strangers for money, then I may reach into my pocket. But what have I done in that moment? I haven’t actually engaged in an act of empathy, but rather in an act of pity.
Empathy requires that we first acknowledge and open ourselves up to another. We have to take the time to learn what it means for another to live in their shoes. It means engaging with them as an equal and full person. Pity minimizes another’s humanity. Empathy embraces and supports it.
Doing unto them as I would want done unto me may mean that they still get my change in the end. But it would only be after I had engaged with them as a full person. That may mean I find out who they are, where they’ve been, what their life is like, and how I can be an encouragement/help to them today. It may mean sitting down for a meal on the curb or even being honest about giving money. In any situation, it means engaging with them on a personal level – like you would with a friend in the hall who you haven’t seen in a while.
This is the tricky part of empathy. It always requires a unique action for each unique situation. But it always demands that we interact and engage with others in the fullness of their humanity.
Today, may your fullness be recognized and may you encourage the fullness of life in others.