empathy, gift and curse

Empathy is at the core of the moral life. Without empathy, a person is unable to make the mental and emotional transference to the other. For example, a psychopath is unable to feel the fear or the pain they are inflicting. Without empathy, we become self-centered to the extreme. We have no concern for the other. We cannot share their joys or their pain.

But, empathy comes with its burdens. Yes, we rejoice in the happiness of others. Their joy lightens our lives. It is the pain that sometimes becomes too difficult to bear.

And, yet…

It is precisely the burden of suffering that we need to share. When our shoulders are bowed by the weight of all, we reach out to friends and family to help us carry the grief. In turn, we offer our hands, our shoulders and our hearts to help carry the pain of others.

Empathy, if embraced too fully, can become the enemy of peace. Caring can become harmful worry. Instead of helping to carry the weight, we take on the full load and become overwhelmed ourselves. We lose our center.

We lose our peace.

We lose hope.

We become frozen in our helplessness, and are no good for others or ourselves.How do we find the balance we need?

There is a scene in the movie “Jesus Christ Superstar” when Jesus is overwhelmed with the crowds seeking his help, seeking cures and miracles. LEAVE ME ALONE! he cries. It’s a heart-wrenching wail of human angst. So, what does Jesus do?

The gospels tell us that Jesus often went seeking solitude. This was not to run away from or ignore the pain of others, but to replenish his soul, rejuvenate his own spirit. He went to pray, offering his burdens and those of others to the ONE who can handle the burdens of all.

Some of the kindest people I know, those with great empathetic hearts, are also faithful persons of prayer. Their love extends beyond their own circle, as daily they raise a litany of prayers for those in need of God’s grace and protection.

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

(Matthew 11:28-30)

6 thoughts on “empathy, gift and curse

  1. About five years ago in a second floor flat in London, Eng., our grand daughter was, well, being a wee one. She had just started walking; loving the attention she was dancing joyfully. Another child cried from the street below, our little girl stopped, her smile gone she began to cry and went to the window. It was automatic, the reaction not learned, not enculturated. A “feeling” of course but a feeling from her nature. It was a feeling to be understood later on and exercised with discernment, trepidation and conscious will? Or lost as “enculturation” and experience dulls or even rationalizes as “not in her best interests”?
    Empathy and compassion were not “invented” by Jesus or our Catholic Church, as seems to be conveyed. They are the essence of love; the foundation of community, ethics and morals. They are the image and likeness of God in us that Jesus sees and encourages; that He elevated and challenges. Empathy is Baptism; the emerging courage to will compassion is our real confirmation – redemption is the elevation from humanness to godliness. But first it is you and I.

  2. A clarification of my post: I do not imply in any manner that Isabella’s essay conveys the notion that our Church, or Jesus “invented” empathy but the Church certainly has.

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