One of the most helpful essays relating to the topic of empathy that I read in the recent issue of The Pedestrian was entitled "Empathy with the Enemy," by Roman Krznaric. In it the author explores some of the ethical dilemmas and yet personal and social benefits from engaging in what he calls "empathetic imagining" which is, simply put, imagining what it is to be somone other than yourself. The hope is, of course, that by doing so, by putting yourself in someone else's shoes, you will better understand their concerns and needs, leading not only to mutual understanding but peaceable and more productive relationships. The ramifications of this kind of empathy for personal relationships, racial and international harmony, and even appropriate aid to the poor should be evident. Only thing is, it's not so easy.
Krznaric notes that the concept is easily invoked by liberals (a group with which he identifies) in the context of arguments for imagining life from the perspective of the "deprived or marginalized, the voiceless or powerless," and yet he argues that "if empathy is truly to take its place as a central value in contemporary culture, we need to put it to test in the most difficult situations, where it can lead us into a moral maze: into seeming contradictions rather than clarity." In other words, we have to extend our empathy even to those whose actions we disdain or which are morally repugnant to us.
The author should know. Two visits to Guatemala gave him ample opportunity to discover just how slippery empathy can prove. In the first visit, he was ensconced in a peasant village where he served as an international human rights monitor (the country was wrapping up 36 years of civil war). In the next visit he came to interview some of the members of the wealthy, ruling oligarchy, ostensibly as an objective reporter seeking the status of things in the country post-civil war. These were some of the racially biased who had hired death squads to kill many of the same peasants he had stayed with. His aim was to discover the oligarchy's outlook, to empathize, not agree with their outlook. When he interviewed one of the women, she became emotional talking about the imprisonment of her son by rebels. In that moment, he empathized with someone whose outlook he found repugnant. He saw her as human: a woman who loved her son and suffered not knowing his fate. He felt genuine compassion.
The situation embodied what he calls the problem of "empathetic dissent" --- that is, how do you empathize with someone whose views or values you disagree with? What he found was that such empathizing does not suspend moral judgment. Rather, he says "the ability to step into someone else's shoes can place you in a strong position to reason with them and persuade them to change their views.
Reading this I was both convicted at my own lack of empathy and made aware of the cultural forces that make it difficult to do so. Americans are very self-absorbed. Our advertising tells us how much we need to be thinking about ourselves. The public persona we project and are so aware of on Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks elevates and seemingly makes important our every move, status change, interests, likes, and dislikes. Frankly, even as I write this blog post it's tempting (and laughable) to consider the importance of what I write. How often do I draw back and really consider what others must perceive about anything, how they must feel, and why they have the opinions (even the stupid and obnoxious ones) that they do?
I cannot help but think of this verse from Phillipians 2:4, where Paul says "Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others." It is in the context of a whole section which commends the sacrificial example of Christ. Truly, deeply empathizing, it seems to me, isn't possible without the transforming power of Christ. For most of us, if we truly empathized with our enemies, we might hate them all the more. Only Christ can make enemy-lovers out of enemy haters. He does it by showing us that though we may be different in degree (I haven't killed anyone lately, that is), we are not different in kind. We all fall short. We all sin. We all need redeeming by the only One who can fully and completely empathize with our state and who has the power to remedy it. His is a singular empathy. Without his, our's is dead in the water.