Posts Tagged ‘Empathy’

Professor Robert C. Solomon takes us from the basic emotions of anger, fear and love into the complexities of sympathy and its trajectory into empathy.  Sympathy can be as simple as “feeling sorry for someone” (30) wherein we are really largely concerned with our own well-being.  At a greater depth of experience, sympathy can become empathy during which we actually share in an emotion with another person.  He notes three levels of empathy:

  1. Emotional contagion is the lowest level.  Emotional contagion is characterized by primitive or hard-wired response.   For example, “ When an infant sees a mother upset and becomes upset too.” (31)
  2. Receptivity is the next highest level.   A parents response to a child’s hunger or wet diaper.  We as individuals don’t ask how it would feel to be the other person, we just simply respond.
  3. Imagination is the highest level of empathy particularly in situations when we are not acquainted or familiar with the other person.  “What would it be like to have this happen to me?” (31)   Solomon notes that empathy leads to a desire to want to help another person but this requires a greater understanding of their circumstances.  And when the desire to help is absent, it may be because we are considering the situation of a perceived enemy.  This is very difficult empathy to cultivate.

While sympathy maybe hard-wired,  Solomon reveals his bias that empathy is cultivated from the sympathetic wiring that is imperfectly connected to our own self-interest.  Quite creatively, he attends to the full complexity of empathy by providing a philosophical history of self-interest.  He profiles the work of philosophers who have reasoned that self – interest may not just be selfish but may also be a way of meeting another person’s needs as well.  I.e. we would like the sunglasses because our girlfriend will think we are cool.  Thus we are affirmed and loved.

So, when the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), via its Book of Order, asks its ministers and officers to serve the church with energy, intelligence, imagination and love, it is a vow beyond creative or fanciful imagination.  Rather it may be an engagement with the world from a maturing self-interest whereby we grow in empathy sustaining precious diversity in order to fully reflect our Creator.


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