“Losing Empathy”  by Mark W. Harris

 October 6, 2013 –  First Parish of Watertown


Call to Worship – from Henri J. M. Nouwen,  The Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey


When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”

Reading from 1984 by George Orwell

 “Sometimes,’she said,’they threaten you with something-something you can’t stand up to, can’t even think about. And then you say, “Don’t do it to me, do it to somebody else, do it to so-and-so.” And perhaps you might pretend, afterwards that it was only a trick and that you just said it to make them stop and didn’t really mean it. But that isn’t true. At the time when it happens you do mean it. You think there’s no other way of saving yourself, and you’re quite ready to save yourself that way. You want it to happen to the other person. You don’t give a damn what they suffer. All you care about is yourself” – Julia”


Sermon –

            One of the most overused instances of physical comedy seems to occurs in every grade B movie, especially those starring Adam Sandler.  I am referring to those innumerable instances when a man gets hit in the groin. Men’s genital pain has become somewhat of a fixture in modern culture. Why would this be so? Do we like to watch them suffer?   You would think seeing someone in pain would cause us to feel some empathy for their suffering. Many of us know this particular pain from personal experience. When such a hit occurs, men can relate, and often instinctively cover up, grimace and cross our legs. Yet from the movies to our own backyards nothing seems to get a rise out of the audience more than testicle mashing.   I am not sure why we laugh at this so readily, but watch an episode of America’s Funniest Videos and you will see what I mean. When it occurs in person, we may also laugh out of nervousness over how the man will respond.  You may have a situation that’s painful, and so while we are aware that it is bad, the situation also meets the criteria for funniness, quite independent of the fact that someone’s getting hurt.  There is nothing like a slip on a banana peel or a fall or a whack in the groin that shows the ridiculousness of human folly.  It’s always especially funny when an authority figures falls or gets hit, because it levels the playing field of who has power. The fact that we laugh is maybe not because the person is getting hurt, but in spite of it.

Most of us know immediately when we feel empathy for someone, and it’s usually not funny.  Just this week I had lunch with a friend who works for the National Park Service.  We were suppose to meet in Cambridge, as we usually do, but he called the night before to remind me that he wouldn’t be there because he wasn’t working, and wouldn’t be for the foreseeable future.  While he and his wife will probably be able to pay the mortgage and afford groceries, the government shut down made me think of those single parents who are out of work, or those who live from week to week.  I empathize with those people who are suffering, but I empathize with my friend, too, because he has to live with uncertainty and stress. When we did meet, my friend was angry with the government because they show no empathy for people, who are out of work. Plus we seem to have a Speaker of the House who only seems to care if he keeps his job, and so he mollifies the right wing while others pay the price.

When I was growing up my parents always quoted the old saying, “you can’t really understand another person’s experience until you’ve walked a mile in their  moccasins,” indicating that they learned the quote as a Native American proverb.   Walking in another person’s shoes was a way to truly understand their life – to empathize.  Empathy is different from charity because it asks us to use our imaginations to place ourselves alongside the person who is suffering.  What are they going through? We believe that we understand another’s pain better if we have lived through that experience ourselves.  We often assume that Alcoholics Anonymous has the most effective approach of dealing with alcoholism because the individuals at AA meetings have walked in those shoes.   After I was hit by the ocean wave, I identified with those had experienced some kind of trauma at sea.  I went to hear Sebastian Junger talk about The Perfect Storm, took part in a panel of survivors at Curry College, and related personally to every story I heard about sea disasters or drownings, including a recent book called Wave, that I received for my birthday.  It is the story of a woman who loses her entire family in a tsunami in Sri Lanka.  Even though my experience was nowhere nearly as traumatic, the devastation caused by the wave is known to me in a personal way.  I became engaged when I observed her suffering.

So we become more involved when we imagine ourselves in that situation.  It becomes personal.  I recently saw the film “Enough Said,” which stars James Gandolfini, of Sopranos fame, who died recently of a heart attack.  The lead characters, he and Julia Louis Dreyfus play divorced people, Albert and Eva, who are suspicious of new relationships.  Yet they hit it off, but then she begins to massage and befriend his ex-wife, who makes all kinds of outrageous statements about him, warping how Eva feels about him.  When she does not tell him what is going on, his faith in her and their new found loved is terminated. Even though we remind ourselves that these characters are merely fictional, movies like this often move us to tears because we remember that pain of being rejected or lied to, or being the subject of false rumors.  When a movie or novel moves us, it is not just fiction that we can forget about but rather it has touched some memory or unacknowledged yearning. The writer Richelle Goodrich recognized that Huck Finn’s father was an abusive drunk just like hers. She writes,” The boy was hopeful that a corpse found near the river was actually his dad, but it turned out not to be. It was spooky how high my hopes rose for the boy, and then sank so utterly low when the body was discovered to be a female in disguise. I should’ve mourned for the woman, but it was the boy I felt bad for.”

We see that imagination is important in our ability to feel empathy.  We can open our hearts to the pain of another and imagine how they might feel, even if they are not real.  We also can see that the suffering we have experienced in our lives helps us learn something about ourselves, and appreciate the unhappiness of another. And even work to do something about it. In the Qur’an God asks Muhammad to remember the sorrows of his childhood to help make sure that no one else in his community will endure the same kinds of abandonment:  Sura 93: 4-11 says: “Indeed what is to come will be better for you than what has gone by.  Verily your Lord will soon give you so amply that you will be well-pleased. Did He not find you an orphan and then gave you shelter? Did He not find you unaware of the Right Way, and then directed you to it? And did He not find you in want, and then enriched you? Therefore, be not harsh with the orphan; and chide not him who asks,and proclaim the bounty of your Lord.”  Some Christians would argue that looking at Jesus suffering on the cross makes us feel empathy for the plight of his condition, and it is that feeling, which redeems us.  He is the human symbol of suffering, and we are moved to do everything we can to relieve that condition in others.

One problem today is that there is so much suffering, we can easily feel overloaded.  From the school shooting in Newtown, to Marathon bombings to the Navy Yard shootings in Washington to violent hurricanes to Middle Eastern bombings, it is hard to feel empathy for it all.  At one time most of the pain and suffering people learned about was local and personal.  The tragedies would not be publicized on the latest news headlines in full color every day and every hour. Nor would we see the continual graphic violence in movies and video games, which tends to anesthetize us to the reality of the real thing. All this can easily make for a kind of empathy overload.  I remember the first time my son Levi was going out on his own to Boston and Cambridge.  He would encounter pan-handlers at every corner.  His initial response was to try to put money into every open hand.  Each one seemed more desperate and hungry than the last.  What to do?   We suggested that he not give money to any of them because he did not know who they were or have any way to know if their situation was legitimate or not.  He wanted to act on his feelings of empathy, but we said he needed to pick and choose who received the benefits of his concern.  He had to be more selective.   Like my personal empathy for those who suffer from a sea borne tragedy, it is probably best for us let our empathetic feelings flow for something that is close to our hearts, too. Perhaps the immigrant experience of an ancestor makes us want to work for immigrant rights, or the drug addiction of a sibling inspires us to support such programs.  This also reminds us that instead of just feeling the pain, we also need to find some constructive path for action, or we can just feel overwhelmed or paralyzed.

I saw a not so funny joke the other day that everyone has the capacity for empathy, except for teenage boys.  Having three teenage boys I know that is not true. All of us have the capacity for empathy, but the question becomes how best to nurture it.  Even though I have suggested that we devote empathetic feelings to those things that matter most to us, and touch a personal chord, there is a danger in merely feeding our own feelings.  We see this sometimes with children after they have endured a trauma.  The schools respond with councilors so that they have someone to talk to if they feel bad, but they often do not give them anything constructive to do to help, other than make them feel good about themselves.   Perhaps we worry too much about what we are feeling, and not enough about what we are doing.

Everyone has a circle of empathy. Who is within our circle?  If a person is inside your circle, then you don’t want to see them hurt or killed, but outside the circle may well be fair game.  We each have different criteria.  We may kill those buzzing mosquitoes that want to suck our blood or the ticks that inflict us with Lyme disease.  Most people fall within the circle.  When slavery was legal, people used scripture to prove slaves were nonhuman, and keep them outside the circle. Widening that circle was a crucial event in human history.  This circle becomes complicated with issues like abortion, because outlawing it, might mean affirming potential entities, while demeaning real entities resulting in the control of the bodies of other people.  Yet personal feelings of empathy have their limits. We have to find ways to broaden our empathy if equality and justice are to prevail. Take the struggle for equal marriage, for instance. If we rely on experience alone to identify with others, then only gays and lesbians would affirm this fight, and not straight people. But we know that’s not true.  Plus if it’s only sons or daughters we are affirming, then that won’t extend our feelings to a broader cross section of the population. Empathy needs to be felt for more than family and friends, and those experiences we identify with.

It is easy to identify that empathy comes into play when we feel a personal connection.  We see that time and again.  Here at First Parish when we have gifts for the Grow Clinic at Christmas time, people became disappointed when they stopped giving us a list with children’s names and ages.  Now it is a more generic gift with no personal attachment. We may be showing empathy for a needy child, but it is not a particular child.  When something strikes us personally we respond with an overwhelming desire to help.  The Newtown shooting was interesting in this regard.  After the massacre, the amount of charity became a burden. Even though the children were dead, and it was an affluent town, an entire warehouse was filled with plush toys they did not need, and millions of dollars rolled in.  Many of those who sent toys or gave money may have also been people who supported cuts to food stamp programs or Medicaid.  Other children suffered while they sent stuffed animals.  The desire to help was worthy, and who among us did not feel the grief of those parents?  But is this a good use of our empathetic feelings?  We have to be wary of putting things in personal terms, even though that is what evokes our most powerful response.  We must ask, is what we are doing helping the person, or are we just allowing our feelings to be soothed or manipulated?    And furthermore, even though we may react personally, might there be another project or need that is less personal, but will help or serve a greater good?

Most of us are well aware of the power of personal attachment.  The television news shows a cute little dog that has suffered beatings inflicted by his owner, and we want to hang the owners by his heels.  We love our little dogs, and can’t abide someone treating an animal this way.  This is a legitimate feeling of empathy, but contributing to a fund to pay for the doggie’s surgery while twenty million children go to bed hungry may not add up. The problem is one dog evokes tears, and twenty million children overwhelm. It’s good that empathy exists, but how do we use it?  We are not like the characters in George Orwell’s 1984 who you heard about in the reading. Even though they have known intimacy and love with each other, and been as personal as you can be, they are now at the point where they only care about saving themselves. So how do we take it beyond the personal?  Knowing that our hearts go out to a young girl who needs a liver, like one recent case, we also need to be sure that fair rules apply and equity is employed.  When you help someone because of feelings of empathy, sadness or grief, whom are you not helping?

We could say that our goal for broadening empathy beyond those we care about would be to love all of humanity.  We know this is difficult because we don’t know them. They live far away, and sheer numbers numb our ability to really care.  Furthermore, this may be just a way to conceal our inability to like others.  Those studying for the ministry used to joke, “I love all of humanity, it’s people I can’t stand.  Loving humanity may be a worthy endeavor,  but it also focuses on the self because you are not expressing love for any particular person. When you love someone, you identify with his or her struggles and joys as if they were your own. What we know is that empathy is the heart’s realization that another person is every bit as real and as worthy as you are. And so we must start there. When I was a child I learned that Asians did not view human life in valuable terms.  My parent’s generation talked about the Chinese hordes, millions of people who would sacrifice lives and not care. This idea is simply not true. I learned that by education, travel, and meeting people. And by feeling.  I just knew. It became personal, but it also became real that me, and my children, were not going to survive unless everyone survives. If nuclear weapons did not make that real, global warming certainly does. We must ask how we can see life in global and ecological terms. We need to take those emotions we feel for others, and use them to join a global family. In today’s world, we only survive together.

Widening our imaginations can be realized in the current government impasse. Some of our representatives in the US Congress do not seem to be capable of feeling empathy for those who do not have health insurance, to the point that they are encouraging young people that they do not need it.  I have a nephew who was severely injured on the job.  He has constant pain.  He may not be able to work again.  He has a young son to support, and now has resigned himself to apply for disability.  He has relied upon my brother and his wife to survive.  This is the kind of person who because of one medical problem can see his whole world collapse, and yet there are those who would call him a malingerer and a fake.  This is an instance where I have that personal feeling of empathy, but there are countless cases like his.  How many people have sold a car or a house or gone hungry because of catastrophic bills?  When does the empathy spread so that we can feel it in global terms?

A few years ago we raised money to support a program in China run  by the daughter of one of our members, Beth Parsons.  It was for children whose parents suffered from AIDS.  We saw those babies and learned their names. They were just as real, and just as worthy as any baby or child who suffers down the street. It also helps us realize that empathy must be extended to those who have yet to be born, so that we give them a world that offers fairness to those competing for scant resources and fresh air to breathe no matter where they live.  We live inside their skin today, and walk in their moccasins because our world has become global.  Now we know there is there is no clean air or medical care for me until there is air and care for everyone. Muhammad realized that the implication of his sufferings were universal.  We must so the same – when we see the children, when we envision the future we learn to begin to feel empathy for the world.


Closing Words  from Frederick Buechner,

Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter’s Dictionary

“If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say like artists, we must see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces. Here it is love that is the frame we see them in.”