Principles: Empathy Concluded (3)

“You understand where they are coming from, don’t you?”

Those words hit me like a punch to the gut. The conversation ended in tears and my parents spent the next twenty minutes trying to convince me that they’re ‘always on my side.’

Here’s a fun fact about me: I hold grudges. It’s not something I’m proud of, and it’s not something I do intentionally. I haven’t spent the intervening year growling at my parents either, but I’d be lying if I said I trust them in matters concerning interpersonal religious conflict. They can’t be my go to for support because I don’t have faith that they’ll support me first, and promote the gracious response second.  I’m embarrassed to say what must be glaringly obvious now: I’m not over it yet.

But the answer to my dad’s question was yes. I understand. And in the interest of fairness I feel a need to explain.

Mr. and Mrs. Jacobs are sincere, devout Christians. Their faith pervades everything they do from the way they interact with their coworkers to their fierce family loyalty. That includes me. When they emailed David about their concerns it wasn’t because they had an agenda. They weren’t asking David to break up with me because they ‘had issues with the faithless girlfriend.’ They were trying to make sure that, in light of the information they had just received, David had put due thought and consideration into the struggles of an interfaith relationship. They wanted to make sure he was following not only his heart, but also his conscience, and that he had reviewed the matter with his highest moral authority, which in this case was god. They avoided telling David what he should do or even saying what they wanted him to do, but encouraged him to pray and consider the risks. I may have disagreed with their relationship theory (Approaching partnership as though each member has veto power that need not necessarily be discussed with the other person involved is—in my opinion—poor form.), but they were acting with loving intent.

They did not raise their concerns behind my back. Mrs. J told me about her messages to David, making sure I heard about the emails from her, and that I understood the spirit in which they were sent. I truly believe that as parents, Mr. and Mrs. J would be remiss in their duties if they did not advise their children to follow conscience in everything, especially in the choice of a partner. I respect them for this, even if I fundamentally disagree with how their conscience is governed. Mrs. J also went out of her way to remind me that she loves me, and this went along way towards my personal healing.

Cognitive empathy enables us to understand not just what a person is thinking, but how they came to think that way. It is the mechanism by which we observe the attitudes of others and relate to their origin, while not necessarily adopting them for ourselves; and it has aided me in overcoming my pride and hurt feelings so I can recognize the complexity surrounding this period in my relationship with David. As must be apparent by the fact that I recount this story at all, I’m still getting over aspects of it, but mutual empathy, kindness, and time continue to do their work. The Jacobs’ are my family too.


It’s been a different story with my own parents. I think it’s worth mentioning that shortly before the book incident I’d already had challenges with a few friends regarding my ideology. People I’d grown close to while colporteuring in Philadelphia became distant and accusatory. An old mentor of mine railed about evolution in a way that told me we could no longer have conversations about some of my reading choices. I realized that just because I had known someone for most or all of my life did not mean they were well suited to be an active part of my life now. In short, I felt alone. I was grieving the friends I had lost and the family I thought I was losing, and I came to my parents—quite frankly—for sympathy. I wanted a hug, and a “there-there.” What I got was just short of an admonition to consider the thoughts of people I felt were abandoning me when what I craved was for someone to understand how that hurt, and to put my feelings first.

At the time my father’s response seemed outrageous. I was the minority. It was twenty odd friends and family members against me. Didn’t I get an advocate? Didn’t I deserve to have someone in my corner? They’re my parents, isn’t it their job? Looking back I realize the situation, from my parents’ perspective, was not so simple, especially since they—like the Jacobs’s—are practicing Adventist Christians. Still, I thought in that moment they owed it to me to put my grief ahead of the Jacobs’ concerns.  I still do.

It is easy to feel the wounds of those whose concerns we share. My parents saw themselves in Mr. and Mrs. Jacobs. They are parents, they are Adventists, they struggle to understand my increasingly secular positions, and they are concerned for the health and future of my relationship with David. It must have been so easy to see themselves as I described the situation with the Jacobs family, and they were naturally inclined to direct their sympathy—their impulses of compassion and support—towards them.

The feeling I’ve struggled with the most since this encounter with my parents was the nagging sense that their response was not only insensitive, but inappropriate. I’ve started to think that perhaps I’ve been correct. There is something inappropriate about sympathizing—in this case, expressing cognitive empathy—towards one party in the presence of the party they have wounded (or the party who thinks have been wounded by the former).

If a principle must talk with two sets of parents whose children engaged in a fist fight, it would be entirely ineffective for the principle to openly pity the child whose parents were not sitting before him. I may be close enough to the situation to know both my best friend and her ex-boyfriend are complicit in demise of their relationship, but it would serve no purpose to mention dual complicity on the night of the breakup when what my friend really needs is someone to stay in with her and eat ice cream. If my partner curses at the bed frame because he stubbed his toe, I need not rise to the bed frame’s defense. Empathy is a skill that helps us maintain meaningful relationships, but when expressed inappropriately it can also damage them. It is possible to misuse empathy if we forget the person who needs it most is usually the person standing in front of us.


This is the hard part: admitting that if I value cognitive empathy I must compassionately consider my parents’ thought process. I don’t get a righteous out, even though a prideful part of me would like to remain angry about this indefinitely. I don’t have to trust my parents to guard my emotional interests, and I don’t have to turn to them when facing the ideologically-based loss of valuable relationships, but I do have to forgive them. I have to forgive them or be a hypocrite. ♦


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