Listen: Chris Witts presents Morning Devotions.
In Part 2, we talked about Oskar Schindler from the Second World War. This German businessman saved something like 12 hundred people—Jews from death in the concentration camps at that time. Amazing story; and a great story of care, empathy and compassion.
Peace activist Mahatma Gandhi was one of the great empathisers of human history. He had an encounter with a leper, who came to his door when he was living in South Africa. As he recounts in his autobiography, “I had not the heart to dismiss him with a meal. So I offered him shelter, dressed his wounds, and began to look after him.”
Not long afterwards Gandhi began helping two hours-a-day as a nurse in a local hospital, while still working as a barrister. Later, during the Boer War, he again volunteered as a nurse, tending sick and wounded soldiers. Gandhi returned to India and in 1912 established the Tolstoy Farm where, similar to the Franciscan Order, “our ambition was to live the life of the poorest people”.
Part of this experiment in poverty and empathy was for each member of the ashram to help clean the toilets, a task that was normally only undertaken by low caste ‘Untouchables’. For Gandhi, having the experiences of the poorest and most outcast members of society was not only a moral imperative but also a way of life from which he drew faith and inspiration. He was a man who clearly understood empathy.
Compassion and sympathy
We need to be careful of criticising or judging others. There is a Native American proverb which says, “Walk a mile in another man’s moccasins before you criticise him”.
If you find yourself being extremely critical of certain people, could you discover a way of wearing their moccasins for a while? You may, as a result, find yourself liberated from your negative opinion.
Empathy and sympathy are different emotions. I feel sorry for you is sympathy; I feel sorrow with you is empathy.
American poet Walt Whitman puts it well: “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels; I myself become the wounded person.”
Compassion is empathy in action. Sympathy is merely a feeling.
The definition of empathy according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions.
It’s hard to put yourself in someone else’s place when you have no point of reference. But as God allows certain experiences in our lives, we don’t have to imagine empathy because we feel it automatically; it is a gift we can give a hurting person.
Empathy is the way for Christians
The word empathy has roots in the ancient Greek word empatheia, meaning ‘passion’. It is more than standing by and shaking our heads in sympathy. It’s jumping into someone’s grief and hurt, shedding tears and sharing the truth and hope of Jesus Christ. Empathy opens doors into another’s soul. It gives us opportunities to encourage and strengthen someone’s faith.
Animals often show empathy towards one another, even to members of different species, and this manifests itself in random acts of kindness. As Lynne McTaggart, author of The Bond, puts it:
Animals often partner up with members of unrelated species…There are even instances of an animal from one species adopting those of another.
And within their own species, animals often share food to make sure that weaker members of their group are fed, even when they have to sacrifice their own food.
So, how much more is the opportunity for us to express empathy. Because that’s the way of the Christian faith. Jesus said: I’ve come to give you life, life in all its fullness.
So, if we have experienced some of God’s eternal purpose and plan for ourselves, we shouldn’t just keep it for ourselves. We need the opportunity—in fact we should look for the opportunity—for helping other people.