This is no one other than Christ himself, who being God “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the like-ness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” (Phil 2,7-8)
I suppose there can be no one who can surpass this supreme act of empathy. That is why we have to look closely at Christ, nay, become Christ ourselves, which is made possible by Christ giving himself totally to us through his word, the sacraments, his Church, his living presence and abiding interventions in our life.
This supreme act of empathy is not something that remains in the theore-tical or generic levels, detached from the concrete situations of people in their daily lives. From the beginning of their life with Christ, the disciples saw and felt the empathy of their Master.
They witnessed his capacity to put himself in the place of the others, his delicate understanding of what was taking place in the interior of the human heart, his refinement in perceiving the pains of the others, etc.
Christ continues to show this empathy to us now till the end of time. That’s simply because, he will always be a contem-porary to every age and generation with its distinctive culture and ways. He adapts himself com-pletely to our human condi-tion without compromising his identity and mission which is to save all men.
That is the standard we have to use in building up our empathy. Nowadays, when empathy seems to be in very short supply, we need to make great effort to develop it by striving to be another Christ. There is no other way empathy can be an integral part of our life.
Our initial problem is that many of us understand empathy more as an instinctive and emotional reaction, and nothing much else. When you see someone stumble and in pain, you immediately mirror his condition by vicariously feeling the fellow´s predicament yourself.
We are in need of mirroring one another´s conditions, since this is how we learn, grow and develop. Thus, the importance of physical, face-to-face encounters, and of being wary of our tendency to just keep to ourselves, limiting our relations with others in the level of intentions.
Of course, we should be careful to avoid extremes—empathy either as only a physical and emotional thing or only as an intentional and disembodied affair.
Empathy is certainly part of our nature that indicates that not only are we individual persons, we are also social beings; not only are we spiritual and intellectual persons. We are also beings of flesh with feelings and emotions.
In other words, empathy should not just be an instinctive and automatic reaction; it has to be a deliberately cultivated trait. It should not just remain in the emotional level; it also has to be properly directed and driven by our conscious reason, then by our faith and charity.
It´s this wholistic grasp of empathy that would truly help us build the society that we deserve as persons and as children of God. We need to do every-thing to attain that understanding and the skill to live it.
Thus, we have to study it not only in the physical, biological and social sciences. It has to be studied also under the light of our faith and religion. The Christian faith, for example, links empathy to the whole range of Christian charity that includes not only loving those who love us but also those who don´t.
It´s this faith where empathy breaks free from its usual confinement in the emotional level to enter into the world of the supernatural to which we are called due to our spiritual nature also.
As to the practical implications of this concern about empathy-building, I can mention a few ideas—to be thoroughly familiar with our Christian faith, to be vitally identified with Christ by always praying and developing the virtues.
We need to cultivate the desire to flood our surroundings with an atmosphere of goodness, kindness, understanding and compassion, complete with smiles, gestures of courtesy and gratitude.
We have to be judicious in our use of the Internet and other modern technologies such that they don´t take us away from direct contact with others, basic in developing empathy. Family and other social get-togethers should be fostered and made an integral part of our daily activities.
Every little act of reaching out to the others, even if only internally, will go a long way in building up empathy. We need to reverse the current disturbing trend where we seem to alienate one another.
Fr. Roy Cimagala, Chaplain, Paref-Springdale School, Lahug, Cebu City, Email: roycimagala@gmail. com