The third stage of empathy is feeling the pain of others and truly feel an identity with the fate of others. Now keep in mind all of the above will say or emote these feelings. But this type of empathy is expressed not only when expected but in their daily lives with everyone they meet. They have genuine Concern about that pain or joy of someone without a need to be concern about others knowing they care. This stage is the hardest to achieve there are many scientists who believe that we do not have altruism in the human makeup. Some evolutionists say any feeling or deed interpreted as altruism has behind it an evolutionary survival purpose. You can understand this level of empathy is hard to develop. In a sense you must move from your natural evolutionary tendencies to obtain it.
Jesus expressed it this way in the Gospel of Matthew 46If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Do not even tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.… Jesus is expressing the need to move beyond what you instinctually feel to a higher or new way of moving within the world. Most people never even try to obtain this stage of empathy. Especially in this age of division we are experiencing. But beyond the lack of effort there is also a deficiency in the knowledge of how to move toward this goal of empathy.
One of the instruments used to develop this way of being is now seldom used: the practice of intercessory prayer. The reason intercessory prayer has failed to be used is it has been misused and understood and therefore has been ridiculed and fell out of practice. What is intercessory prayer? It is where you pray for guidance in your life for knowledge o assist live with the people in your life. And yes, it is also prayer that a higher power may assist someone to have the assistance they need. But one can never ask for that assistance without a willingness to be the answer to that prayer. Prayer of this kind is more about what you should and can do in your life and less about what magic God or some other power can sprinkle onto the situation. It is an attempt by calling up the needs you perceive that are around you to learn how to feel and know those needs. This is not easy. You will be wrong many times. You will not truly understand the other person or you will be blocked by the assumption everyone needs what you would want in that particular situation.
When I pray for my children it should not be focused on what I want for them but praying what or how they want to happen. Of course, this does not include interceding for things that would be harmful. But here lies the rub not to deem something is harmful if it does not meet our expectations of what we want. If someone chooses not to have children for whatever reason and we desire grandchildren, it is not ours to pray that they change their mind. It is ours to contemplate in prayer and meditation what else is the thing they want. Think how problematic this becomes with people we love. Now consider to reach this stage you must move beyond loved ones and pray for your enemies and those who we do not have emotional ties. This task may seem impossible.
Intercessory Prayer begins in entering prayer and meditation thinking of those around you and not yourself. Meditating on the things that are happening in their lives and what to the best of our ability think upon those things they may need. What would make them happy, successful, whole?
Buddhist teachings by both Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh provide teachings on developing empathy. It begins with thinking about some item or service you have in your life and begin to visualize how it came before you. The hands that made, delivered, sold, maintained the item and appreciate them for their talent. ‘Now, when you recognize that all beings are equal in both their desire for happiness and their right to obtain it, you automatically feel empathy and closeness for them. Through accustoming your mind to this sense of universal altruism, you develop a feeling of responsibility for others: the wish to help them actively overcome their problems.’ Dalai Lama
Your dinner, your clothes, your car and so on. Express gratitude for all those hands that have made your meal, clothes possible. Now wish each of these people happiness. Wish for them good things too. And through the practice of gratitude for those things you have you begin to build empathy. Of course, those who do not offer you products deserve empathy too. Visualize the people you see on the way to work. The smile or the sadness and think on these people too. This how you begin to build empathy think of those you usually do not. According to science another way is to know someone from a group. People who have friends who are gay, black, asian, or another class are more likely to have favorable views of the population they know. This is the danger when we work and live in primarily segregated environments, we will be less likely to understand and have empathy for them.
To use an AA adage fake it to you make it is true for empathy too. We need to express concern and listen to others. We need not to be judgmental, but present. When we can control our need to respond or not always thinking of our reply, while someone is talking, we open the path to empathy. Empathy is not found when we are talking but when we are listening. Empathy is not found when we are unmovable but when we can shift our ground a little. Empathy is not found when we are defensive but when we are able to handle criticism. Empathy is when we cannot judge but offer a helping hand.
Of Course, the final and last step in empathy is to act on what we now feel and know because we are open to the other. We will make mistakes but if we spend time in others shoes and time in reflection after we have tried to assist we will develop a power slowly but surely to be empathetic. The world needs more empathy. Hopefully, we can answer the need.
This is the second blog on empathy. Everyone thinks they are empathetic, but few have more than the most rudimentary level of empathy. The second level of empathy is when you move from verbalizing your empathy to emotively expressing your empathy. You hear or see something that you assess you should have empathy or you feel some kind of emotional empathy (anger, sad, fear, feel anxious etc.,). You cry, yell, or shrink. But the empathy is expressed not to call attention to someone’s situation but about how their situation makes you feel. A classic expression of this when someone announces they feel your pain. The empathy is centered on yourself and not the situation of the other. You are no longer following societal norms you are indeed feeling their pain but your expression of it is about self.
They will feel most empathetic about things they have no control or do not encounter in their daily lives if ever. In fact, they can have some borderline psychological problems. Many moons ago I worked in a group home for paranoid schizophrenics. On one particular occasion, one of our residents came into my office in tears. This man was from an upper-class family and had shown at one time great potential. He had several poems published and was in an elite Ivy League college, but the disease had taken over his mind and left him mentally unable to function. He no longer could write coherently, and his conversations would often meander into delusions. But this day he was very coherent about the pain he was feeling. He had watched the news and there was an earthquake in some Asian country, and he felt horrible about this event. He somehow inexplicably came to the conclusion that he was responsible. He over identified with the plight of the people.
When the Twin Towers in New York came down after an attack I cannot tell you how many people around me knew someone in the Towers. Now this might have been true for some but impossible for most. In fact, when I asked them about this. They would play the Kevin Bacon game of 'twelve degrees of separation'. They knew someone that knew someone that knew. When I worked with people impacted with AIDS in the early days of the crises, I constantly would have people who wanted to ‘volunteer’ so they could meet for a day someone infected so they could say they knew someone with AIDS. They would break down in tears and say how important volunteering was for them. But often they would volunteer one day and be gone. Why only one day? Because it was not about the persons living with AIDS but about their need to show and be recognized for caring. I feel your pain.
This is often the realm of the liberal heart. You may be sensitive about the needs of others and how they may feel and your response is to let them know you understand. They feel a need to be affirmed that indeed they feel and even think right so they must be a good person. These individuals are usually known in racial issues as the fragile white. They want to be affirmed that they are not like other whites. They cannot be called racist because they feel and speak the right things. So even though they may participate in a racist system they are offended when confronted about this because they know how you feel. They are mad about it. They are depressed about it. So, you should be able to see that they are good people. These are what are called the rush to hush people who do not need to hear your stories because they make them feel bad and they already know how you feel. Thus, racism can continue at this level of empathy because you are not interested in ending racism but instead being recognized for your understanding of the problem.
This is a step up from stage one in that you are not merely fulfilling a societal expectation but indeed feel their pain, but it falls short of the deepest forms of empathy. In my next blog I will continue to explore a third stage of empathy. Until then try to listen to another’s needs and pain.