In this weekend’s New York Times, Daryl Cameron, Michael Inzlicht, William A. Cunningham have an opinion piece on empathy and why it can be dangerous to think of empathy as something over which we have no control, something that just happens or doesn’t. If we have no control over empathy, the argument goes, and we “just happen” to feel more empathy for people who are like us, we will have to set empathy aside if we are going to behave well towards people who are different from us. Cameron, Inzlicht and Cunningham respond:
While we concede that the exercise of empathy is, in practice, often far too limited in scope, we dispute the idea that this shortcoming is inherent, a permanent flaw in the emotion itself. Inspired by a competing body of recent research, we believe that empathy is a choice that we make whether to extend ourselves to others. The “limits” to our empathy are merely apparent, and can change, sometimes drastically, depending on what we want to feel.
In terms of our practice here at Holy Trinity, we have to choose to “reach across all boundaries” before we will “just feel like it.” When we promise “to seek and serve Christ in every human being,” we are committing ourselves to a course of action. Cameron, Inzlicht and Cunningham go on:
Likewise, in another recent study, the psychologists Karina Schumann, Jamil Zaki and Carol S. Dweck found that when people learned that empathy was a skill that could be improved — as opposed to a fixed personality trait — they engaged in more effort to experience empathy for racial groups other than their own. Empathy for people unlike us can be expanded, it seems, just by modifying our views about empathy.
In other words, if we have faith, if we trust God to help us to love our neighbor as ourselves (even when we don’t spontaneously feel like it), we will have the courage to do those works—sitting down for a shared meal and conversation, greeting strangers—that will help us develop empathy. Then, the next time, we will be more likely to spontaneously feel like reaching out. Faith and works go hand in hand!
Take some baby steps. Find someone who is different from you in some way and reach out. Don’t be surprised and hurt if they don’t receive you warmly. After all, you are as different from them as they are from you, and they might not feel like responding positively. They may even have very good reason to suspect your motives. So remind yourself that getting a positive response is not the point. Your empathy is the issue, not theirs.