“Holy God, as you have touched us,
may we touch others with your love.”
As most of us continue a ‘stay at home,’ ‘social distancing,’ way of life, I have found myself reflecting on the virtue of empathy and how it can get lost due to our frustrations with the situation and our self-preoccupations. I find myself being so focused on the state of the economy and other practical considerations that I forget there are people suffering, some dying from the virus every day.
What is empathy? According to the Dictionary it is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another within their frame of reference. It is the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.
Some antonyms to empathy are: self-centeredness, hard-heartedness, antipathy, and the mistaken belief that showing empathy is a sign of weakness.
In the Bible, in the New Testament, there are some significant passages that treat of the virtue of empathy. Here are a few: ”Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15); “Coming within sight of Jerusalem, Jesus wept over it and said: If only you had known the path to peace this day; but you have completely lost it from view” (Luke 19:41-44); “We do not have a high priest (Jesus) who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but one who was tempted in every way that we are….” (Hebrews 4:14-16).
Some examples of practicing empathy in the midst of the virus: praying for those who have died from it and for their grieving loved ones; praying for those who have tested positive for it, for their complete recovery; and wearing a face mask in public to protect not only ourselves but others around us.
Empathy is a virtue of the heart. I find the following reflection helpful in keeping my heart open:
My heart goes out to:
Care givers and first responders who put their lives in jeopardy so others can live.
People of all ages who have had the virus or who are presently suffering from it.
Family members who are unable to visit their sick in the hospital and for those who are dying from the virus who are without the comfort of their loved ones.
Elderly people in nursing homes.
People who live alone and struggle doubly with loneliness during the lockdown.
Men and women who are incarcerated and are forced to live in close quarters.
Saturday and Sunday religious worshippers who are unable to be together in person for their services.
Small business owners who are suffering financially, some of whom could lose their company as a result of the virus.
People who are out of work. The poor and defenseless who lack testing.
Students in their Senior Year in colleges and universities who lost the joy of graduating in person with their classmates.
Teachers who were separated from their students; the uncertainty of how classes will restart in the fall – on-line or in classrooms.
Empathetic people speak from the heart and not just from the head. Empathetic leaders publically and often voice their concerns for the suffering of their constituents. Their primary concern is for the welfare of others, not for their own personal agenda.
Someone who understood empathy and lived it with great courage was St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta. In her “Life of Faith” prayer, she shared the following:
When I am hungry, send me someone who needs food.
When I am thirsty, send me someone who needs a drink.
When I am distressed, send me someone to console.
When my cross is becoming heavy, send me someone with whom to share their cross.
When I am discouraged, send me someone to encourage.
When I need to be understood by others, send me someone who needs my understanding.
When I need to be cared for, send me someone to care for.
When I only think of myself, attract my attention to someone else.
NOTE: If you would like to read other short articles I have written and homilies I give, go to the Jesuits West website (.org). On the Home Page, click on “Ignatian Spirituality” (at the top). Then click on “Spirituality and Ethics” (right hand column).
Fr. Max Oliva, SJ