Checking our empathy

When I bought my first car, I was encouraged to do regular checks on key components of the car. Checking the water, oil and tyres is standard practice to maintaining a healthy functioning car.

Just as my car needs regular attention, so do other aspects of my life. I try and go to the doctor and the dentist at regular intervals, so that my physical and dental health is in good shape. In more recent months, I have been thinking about how I check my levels of empathy.

An article in the New York Times alerted me to a new disorder, EDD, or Empathy Deficit Disorder. The article suggests that EDD is reaching epidemic proportions. It seems that the busier we are, the more materialistic we are, the more self-centred we are likely to become. Our levels of empathy, our genuine concern for the wellbeing of others starts to leak. Empathy is a feeling for and with others. It involves an emotional and cognitive awareness that orientates us towards putting ourselves in the shoes of another.

Jesus was brilliant at it. The gospels tell story after story of how Jesus was so alert and sensitive to those that he met who were doing life tough. Jesus is our role model for how to do empathy; every once in a while we need to check how we do or do not do empathy. People in pain, grief, loss and sadness provide us with the opportunity to show empathy. As someone who has  experienced some measure of all of these recently, allow me to suggest a few ‘rules’ to avoid EDD.

  1. It’s not about you

    Too often a grieving person finds that friends and acquaintances will quickly want to talk about themselves and about how your loss affects them. Self-focused remarks, like recalling a relatively small loss in their life, focuses the attention away from the grieving person. Non-empathetic people almost unconsciously switch the attention back to their own stories and effectively ignore the other person’s need for care and recognition.

  2. There is no bright side

    Sometimes well-meaning people want to cheer you up and lighten your mood. By contrast, empathetic people understand that when you grieve deeply you are in a  dark place and that trying to get someone to feel happy doesn’t help. Sentences that begin “at least” are not helpful. A grieving person needs their feelings validated. Our Christian faith speaks of hope in the darkest tunnel. However, failing to acknowledge the darkness of loss gives little comfort.

  3. Be gently curious

    The empathetic person knows how to ask the kind of questions that are non-invasive and yet enable the grieving person to talk about their loss. This requires vulnerability, a radical listening and a warm heart. It goes beyond well-meaning, but frustrating platitudes like “let me know if you need anything.” This puts the onus on the bereft person to be the one to ask for help. Rarely will a bereaved person respond to such a vague offer.

  4. Do something practical

    Empathy leads to action. There are a huge range of things that empathic people do. They send cards and flowers. They pop in and say “hello, I am thinking of you.” They don’t say “let’s catch-up for coffee or lunch sometime”; they come around with a meal or they make a specific day and time to meet. The empathetic person, through caring words, pastoral curiosity, deep listening and thoughtful deeds, show they care.

I am very grateful that I have been on the receiving end of all these gifts. However, Empathy Deficit Disorder is not unknown in the Christian community. Maybe we could all do with a check-up.


Rev Steve Francis, Moderator of the Uniting Church WA

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