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Musing about Empathy

By January 30, 2014 No Comments

Guest blogging for Theresa Latini today is Nkiru Okafor. Sr. M. Nkiruka C. Okafor IHM is a member of the Religious Institute of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Mother of Christ. A PhD Candidate in Pastoral Care and Counseling at Luther Seminary, she is interested in research on spirituality in youth ministry, media, culture, and religion.

Daniel Siegel, professor of clinical psychology at UCLA and developer of interpersonal neurobiology (IPNB), notes that empathetic connection heals and restores the brain to its optimal function. He uses many terms to describe this type of communication. In this work, The Developing Mind, he uses terms such as compassionate communication, interpersonal contingent communication, collaborative communication, caring communication, integrative communication, reciprocal communication, respectful interpersonal communication, and cooperative communication. In a way, this describes a type of communication that is once honest and respectful of the other. It is a communication process that takes the feelings and needs of the other seriously. Siegel claims that “as adults, we need not only to be understood and cared about, but to have other individuals simultaneously experience a state of mind similar to our own.” I have been wondering why we would not rather emphasize this type of communication than the hate-filled messages we pass around in our world even as Christians.

Passing through St. Paul, MN, I saw an ad placed on a bank. It reads, “Our Mission is to serve with empathy.” Even financial institutions are talking about the essence of empathy. I once attended a conference where a graphic designer spoke about how empathy is the greatest factor that has shaped and reshaped what they do with designs given the way it continuously showed up as the marker of progress in their work.

According to a popular quote by Nelson Mandela, “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”  

If the wounds of our world could be healed with empathy, why would we not concentrate energy on making it more accessible to ourselves and others? Why do we socialize our people to hate rather than to express empathy and love? 

I once volunteered some hours at a homeless shelter in Downtown Minneapolis. On a particular day, I watched a Somali girl, a Chinese boy, a Hispanic girl, and a White girl playing their hearts out. These kids have no concept of race or religion. The Somali girl’s Hijab was pulled out by one of the playmates and they all used it as a kite to run around the house. They are all five years old. I watched the scene and shuddered with amazement. No wonder we are called to be child-like in the Gospels. In my mind, I reconstructed the scene with adults of the same race and religion together in a room. Could there ever be so much trust and respect that white Christians and adult Somalis engage one another playfully?

Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger and Theresa Latini, in their book Transforming Church Conflict, ground compassionate communication in God’s love shown through Jesus Christ. Aware of our human flaws and weakness, they write, “though compassion cannot be sustained over long haul by means of our own meagre resources, it can be renewed daily by means of our connection to the core of God’s love.” Compassion has its source in God, they argue, and empathy is a profound practice of compassion desperately needed in our families, churches, and communities today. What would it take for the church simultaneously to catch up to the latest scientific insights into empathy and healing and to retrieve this vision of compassion woven throughout the biblical text and exemplified in Jesus’ life? Might this not be a faithful, missional move for us today?


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