The Logic of Empathy

The direct result of shutting out the points of view of those we disagree with is a loss of empathy. Disagreement, handled gently, can lead to a great deal of understanding. Demonizing can lead to only one thing – the end of civil relationships.

We can only relate to each other if we’re open to each other’s emotions, experience and points of view. When considering another person we must, if only for a moment, put ourselves in their shoes and listen to the fullness of their life. Or the emptiness of their life. We must not be quick to judge. We must not move to silence them. We must always hold them as equals, regardless of how much we disagree with them. This is empathy.

This kind of empathy enables others to grow. It enables us to grow. The withdrawal of this empathy leads to the utter cancelation of experience and the people who share it.

The withdrawal of empathy also leads to an inability to forgive. And without forgiveness we are trapped in a hell in which everyone offends, people slowly close their minds, and all becomes simplistic, boiled down of nuance, devoid of deep thought, and angry.

When I was a kid it was an insult to say someone had a one track mind. Now it’s become a requirement. We are encouraged to adopt a point of view and stick to it, giving those who oppose our simplistic, ill-supported, narrowing focus a label and using that label to completely shut them down.

How are we, in an age of polarization, to ever get beyond our own little minds and truly experience the depth of diversity of the world around us and the people who make it vital? How are we to build a truly accepting society without accepting those we disagree with? How are we to survive as a culture without empathy?

In the Catholic Church, before one makes their first Holy Communion one must accept the sacrament of reconciliation, or confession. When my daughter made her’s the priest insisted that all the childrens’ parents also come forward and confess. I sat to the side of the altar with the priest and rambled off a litany of sins. For penance, in order to be fully forgiven, he told me to return to the pew, bring to mind someone I truly did not like, and pray for them.

I thought, God, can’t I just say Hail Marys and Our Fathers? It is so difficult to think well of those we disagree with. Yet as the priest taught, it is crucial to a life in which one can deal with their own imperfections, let alone the often exaggerated faults of others.

Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference. It does not require that we agree with them. But is does require that we give them a full hearing and develop a society in which they are secure enough to express their experience. And to live their experience.

Above all else I want my daughter to have an open mind. How else can she function in an imperfect world? How else can she accept her father, or anyone, with our years of poor decisions, grave insults and suffering, combined with the joys and learning and sharing that make up who we are? How else can she fully know anyone without spending a little time in their shoes? How else can she shape a world for the people she loves without full consideration of the people she does not love?

In the end, when we lose our empathy and rule out the grace of forgiveness we rule out the possibility that we, too, will be accepted and forgiven. All soon lose, and society soon frays at the seams meant to stitch us together.

So bring to mind someone you truly don’t like – a neighbor or a family member or a co-worker or a political figure, and pray for them. I bet you feel better. And I bet the next time you encounter a person with an opposing point of view you are less likely to shut them down.