Practising empathy

Last Sunday was Trinity Sunday. Here at Revesby, we considered Trinity through the prism of God, in Godself, being relationship, being community.

God, in Godself, is continually evolving because of the potential of the relationships of love between Father, Son and Spirit to reshape one another.

At our evening service, discussion of Trinity led to reflections about the power of empathy.

I happen to be in the middle of a book, The War for Kindness’ by Jamil Zaki, about the ways empathy can be enhanced.

I have found his work challenging.

Being sobered over recent months by what is happening in the world, I have felt less than optimistic. However, this book points to positive possibilities.

Zaki claims that empathy is an inherent ability that everyone possesses. Further, it can be enhanced by practice and by reframing the way we view others.

The firing of ‘mirror neurons,’ found in various parts of our brains, may constitute the biological basis of empathy.

These neurons fire both when we feel something, and when we observe another feeling the same thing.

In brain scans, precisely the same parts of the brain light up, rendering it impossible to determine whether it is the individual who is feeling or the one whom they observe.

Empathy is an innate ability.

According to Zaki, we then make choices about what we do with that experience. We may do little or nothing; we may do something.

The experience of empathy does not cause us to act; it is a trigger.

Our decision is mostly determined by how we view the other individual. If they are an ‘outsider’, we are less likely to act for their benefit.

(On a sobering note: our mirror neurons are more likely to fire when we see individuals suffering; not when we perceive large groups of people suffering.)

The parable of the Outrageous Samaritan is pertinent (Luke 10:25-37).

The Samaritan in the story saw a Jew lying by the side of the road, beaten up. He felt empathy (v. 33, the standard translation ‘pity’ is very weak).

What the parable does not articulate, following Zaki’s insights, is that the Samaritan decided to act on this experience (which the other two on the road may also have felt) for the benefit of an enemy, a rank outsider.

It was his decision that was crucial.

Most people do not act as the Samaritan did.

However, when we change the frame through which we view others, i.e. change it from ‘friend or enemy’ to ‘human,’ we are more likely to act on our empathy. (In Donald Trump’s case, having recently cited his intervention in the Mexico border wall to make it ‘bigger, better and cheaper,’ affirmative action is much less likely.)

Practising empathy and changing the frames we use are critical.

I wonder what a community that committed to doing this would look like…

Applying Zaki’s insights to Trinity, it may reach its fullest potential, its most poignant expression, when it is open to, and includes, outsiders, even enemies.