Empathy is defined as “the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.” In other words, to empathize is to feel what other people are feeling. Sometimes we don’t have a choice. If we see a person walk into an obstacle or stub their toe we reflexively wince. At sporting events men double over or guard their genitals when athletes suffer blows to the crotch. Women cross their arms when observing breast implant surgery. Physical empathy is a fact of our biology. We can’t help it.
We can, however, control and develop our cognitive empathy. Cognitive empathy enables us to understand, on an instinctual level, not just what a person is thinking, but how they came to think that particular thought. It’s what allows us to understand another person’s point of view or predict the decisions of a close friend or family member. It is the mechanism by which we observe the attitudes of others and relate to their origin, while not necessarily adopting them for ourselves.
Emotional empathy is behind the ride Austin-lovers take, from hating William Darcy to desperately wanting him to propose. (So many adaptations, so little time.) It’s the reason we cried when Watson cried at Sherlock’s gravestone, and the reason we DO NOT LIKE Sally. (Although her character has more complexity than is often acknowledged.) It’s why we celebrate when marriages are solemnized and turn our opinions on a dime when someone we love is hurt by someone who should’ve loved them. It is deeper than sympathy, it’s deeper than a social understanding that an event is happy or sad; empathy is the echo of another person’s wounds in ourselves.
I believe in the personal and societal cultivation of empathy as a moral principle. Our neurological makeup embeds the capacity for empathy within our very anatomy, but it is still a skill that must be honed. When applied well, empathy is what allows us to imagine one another complexly. When applied poorly, or inappropriately it can break hearts.
A Personal Story
I’ve told bits of this story before in Shorthand, Yoked, Two Assumptions, and Bringer of Pain, but I’ve never told the whole story. Part of me wanted to avoid ‘dishing’ about people I love and care about. I’ve also been afraid to fully outline and write my side of the story, but I think it’s time. I’ve wanted to write about empathy for a long time, and each time I begin this story comes back to me. I’ve decided to make it a part of this post, and hope you will understand the spirit in which I do so.
As my long-time readers will know, I spent the summer before my sophomore year of college colpeurtering in Philadelphia. This experience with literature evangelism helped push me into the next gear of religious questioning. In may ways, I credit evangelism with accelerating my path to functional atheism. Evangelism forced me to meet and engage with people of other faiths, in various stages of faith, and with no faith. I met happy Catholics and kind Muslims. Some of the most fulfilled individuals I have ever met subscribed to religious philosophies condemned by the church in which I was raised. I started asking questions like, Why should I promote Adventist literature to people who are happy? Why do these people need what I have? Am I so sure that what I have is worth sharing? If these people are truly missing something in their lives, why do they seem so fulfilled? Colporteuring was a transformative experience, and when I returned, full of questions and hopes, I found my kernel of friends from the year before had all succumbed to atheism or agnosticism. That’s how it began in college.
A year later my partner, David, was attending school abroad as part of a language immersion program. I also spent part of that year abroad, studying in the UK. In England I began to openly accept my own agnosticism. I stopped being a liberal Adventist, or even a liberal Christian. I altered my affiliations first from theist to agnostic-theist, then to agnostic, and finally to atheist. I’ve been jumpy with that last term. It functions as a description of my state of worship. I do not devote myself to, or acknowledge any deities or supernatural forces of any kind. To describe myself, however, I prefer terms like Humanist, Ignostic, or person-who-shall-discuss-these-matters-over-coffee. At the time, however, all I knew for sure was that I no longer believed in a divine personality who played a direct role in planning or shaping my life or the events on earth. I hadn’t for some time.
When I returned home I slowly came out to people I trusted to be open and supportive. I awkwardly stared at the carpet during the organized prayers that prefaced class and school-sponsored events. I bit my tongue when people asked me to pray for them. Sometimes I lied. I realized I couldn’t share many of my thoughts and questions about the nature of reality in a social culture where the nature of reality is discussed over Sabbath dinner (this is normal when 90% of the salaried adults you know are post-secondary educators of some kind). I remained as silent as possible during family worship, mouthing the hymns and prayers.
I felt consumed by a feeling of ‘otherness.’ As a kid I’d been told that atheists were unfulfilled, unhappy people who had no ethical mooring and no real reason to live. I’d always imagined them to be cold individuals. When I joined their ranks, however, I found the icy breeze came not from me, but the community I had left. There are few things more disconcerting than the sneaking suspicion that people are only being affectionate towards you because they don’t know the truth—that if they knew your motives, values, and the thoughts that flit through your head they would find you wholly and utterly objectionable. Not many people knew, but I was already emotionally and psychologically excluded from religious routines that saturate day-to-day life in my home town: organized prayers in the morning, in the car, at every meal, and before stating the business of any group gathering; evening worships, the opening and closing of the Sabbath, weekly church attendance; ‘bless you’s and ‘amen’s; ‘thank god’s and ‘praise god’s; Tuesday morning chapel; praise music, prayer requests, and folksy declarations about god’s gifts, tests, and blessings. I didn’t know how to behave anymore. I didn’t want to be disingenuous with people, to pretend to pray or fake genuine worship. I also didn’t want to open myself up to judgement.
I erred on the side of honesty. I told David about my new-found openness, and I became ever-so-slightly more open with his family. When it comes to my spiritual life I’ve always been pretty buttoned up. Maybe it’s because I share my English professor’s aversion to ‘spiritual exhibitionism.’ Maybe growing up in the post-WWJD era has cultivated a slightly jaded attitude towards ‘testimonies’ and the sharing of ‘spiritual victories.’ My spiritual life had always been vibrant and deeply personal, and I didn’t often share it for the same reason I don’t post sex tapes online. When I started to walk away from the church, however, I felt that I owed it to David’s family to be a little more open, even if I wasn’t ready to come out and say, “I’m an atheist.”