By Mary T. Tracy
What if we treated our empathy with the respect that we afford grief? Grief can be described as a powerful river that threatens to overflow its banks when we ignore it – or an ocean that threatens to drown us when we wallow in it. Either extreme – ignoring or losing ourselves in grief – can make an already difficult process more painful, complicated, and disorienting.
Fortunately, we have many helpful tools for navigating grief – Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler come to mind, along with more recent work by Lucy Hone. But I sometimes wonder if empathy is a similar animal to grief – a powerful force that does damage when ignored, disrespected, or indulged as an end in itself. What if we learned to treat empathy as a marker of our humanity that demands a place at the table of our rational, spiritual, ethical reflection?
This idea has become increasingly urgent for me as I see how many people have lost faith in God or church, have lost contact with a faith community, or have lost faith in themselves and their own goodness in God’s eyes. At the same time, many others have actually grown stronger in faith, in awareness of our dependence on God, aware of the good that God can do through us.
The bond for both of these groups – those who have found their faith strengthened and those who have had their faith broken – is a powerful stream of empathetic resonance. I find myself helping others redirect their empathy into ethical, accessible channels of compassion, so that my colleagues, family, and friends can avoid a sense of powerlessness. For example, after a tragic fire claimed two young lives, my hospital partnered with the Red Cross to install smoke detectors in the homes of local families. I think it was as at least as emotionally helpful to the volunteers as it was to the neighbors receiving the service.
As for the alienated and those who have lost faith, I believe the way forward is to build relationships. That is true within our church communities, and I am starting to see how this can work very similarly and often in a more gratifying way within our mixed communities at work, in families, in neighborhoods, and at school.
For example, the day before Ash Wednesday, I emailed colleagues with a suggestion to pick a Lenten commitment that removed obstacles to our deeper joy in God, rather than one that imposed unnecessary hardship just for the sake of sacrifice. One colleague, a self-described atheist, responded to me personally, saying he had long ago dismissed God as a criminally negligent father. We went back and forth until we established common ground around our shared desire to avoid being “criminally negligent” neighbors to our brothers and sisters.
I had a similar conversation with a colleague at another Catholic institution who confessed her lack of faith as if it were the most dangerous, shameful thing she could say. And this was while talking about mission formation and how to do it better! But she proceeded to share some creative initiatives about social justice work, which brought us back to what united us in our desire to live out social justice principles in the institutions where we serve.
However, such conversations can also descend into conflict around differences of faith perspective and moral standards. When conflict arises in my own mind about the relationship between faith and works, I reflect on how both Moses and Jesus responded to complaints about unauthorized personnel doing good works. I especially appreciate Moses’ response, roughly paraphrased as: If only everyone felt so moved to do such good!
All this has fed my growing sense that empathy can divide us if we let it, and it can connect us if we have the courage to establish it as common ground. I also believe that those who are motivated by this common empathy and yet do not have the comfort of faith in a loving, self-sacrificing, servant-leader God are more at risk of running dry.
I might be wrong – particularly for individuals like the two I just mentioned who may be drawing on a kind of faith that defies words. After all, they are working for Catholic institutions, but they could go elsewhere and do the same kind of work without all the crucifixes on the walls. What keeps them so integrated into a God-centric world? I suspect it is a subconscious perception that the God-centric mission/vision/values fit with their sense of empathy, more so than non-God-centric organizations in the same line of work.
A very small minority of people lack any sense of empathy, but it would be wrong to blame them for social and political problems. That would be like blaming deaf people for failing to hear an alarm. But sociopaths themselves suffer gravely in their lack of actual human suffering. My understanding is that they lack any of the joy of love and suffering with.
If we can redefine the most important social fault line as empathy vs. inability to feel, perhaps we can act with greater care for all – including the ones more likely to hurt themselves and others by sociopathic choices. We would certainly be in a better position to mitigate the damage done either by lack of empathy or by empathy run amok.
Mary T. Tracy, BCC, is director of pastoral care at Cleveland Clinic Marymount Hospital in Garfield Heights, OH.