Empathy is an extraordinarily important natural virtue. Empathy is the quality or condition by which a person, when seeing pain and suffering in the lives of others, can enter into that suffering so powerfully that he or she actually experiences (to a limited extent) what the suffering person is going through. While this is a great virtue, and countless numbers of people exercise it very well, when crises develop and tragic situations arise, there ought to be a more universal and generous response than is actually the case. To a great extent, that response can be measured directly in terms of the media presentation. The last time I saw a count, more than $30 Million had been sent to aid the victims of the Boston marathon, while the much more extensive, agonizing and destructive explosion in West, Texas, had not yet generated a million dollars in donations.
What will be the response to Oklahoma tornado tragedy?
The destruction is beyond imagination. While fatalities and even injuries were relatively low given the massiveness of the storm, the destruction of homes is simply unbelievable. Fortunately, virtually every tv network has been posting telephone numbers and internet links to accept even ten dollar contributions. Can you imagine the effect on the suffering people of Moore if half of the employees in this country sent in their $10? The media people are right to ask us for such a low, managable amount, to encourage everyone to participate, but unless the viewers act on their empathy, we will be left with them shaking their heads and saying “what a shame” but not acting on it.
Empathy exists in the human heart. Shouldn’t we extend it, in this case, to an entire nation? Please consider reaching out to these now homeless and desperate citizens of Oklahoma. I believe empathy generates great returns in God’s divine bookkeeping. Remember our Lord’s words, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
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As we move along in Lent, I would like to state again my personal feelings that it is a far better attempt to discipline ourselves to perfect an undeveloped virtue than to just make symbolic sacrifices of giving up something for Lent, like candy or movies. There is certainly nothing wrong with practicing self-denial about items which we thoroughly enjoy but for most of us that doesn’t get to the real heart of the issues for which the Church tries to develop a Lenten spirit. It would be far better to attempt to improve ourselves by developing one or another valuable virtue that we might not tend to think about too much. I would like to suggest the virtue of empathy.
Webster tells us that empathy is “the quality of being able to inject one’s own personality into the personality of another in order to understand him better.” It gives us the ability to share in another’s emotions or feelings and therefore to more clearly understand his or her pain.
As we rush through life taking care of our own individual responsibilities, we sometimes ignore very real pain and sorrow that is all around us. Each Lenten day, we could begin by examining our consciences as to whether or not we had opportunities to offer sympathy or support to a family member, a neighbor, a co-worker and let that chance slip by. Let’s resolve to do better today.
I thought of this issue after reading an article from the New York Times back in late January. It talked about the suffering and isolation that families experience when a member of the family, in a demented state, has gone on a killing spree. Some among us instinctively blame the family after one of these tragedies. We should be having the opposite response. Empathy, however, can be generated far this side of mass murder. It is also called for when a young man has just broken up with his girlfriend or an applicant to the local university is turned down by that school. We cannot help people effectively with pain and suffering in their lives if we are not conscious of that pain, conscious of that suffering. Empathy is a wonderful gift that helps both the person suffering and the one who is more conscious of that suffering.
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Several days ago I expressed my opinion that the discomfort many people associate with the discussion of death is unnecessary and misguided. The reality of death crowds in on all of us and cannot be denied, must be dealt with in an optimistic Christian manner. But what about the reality of pain?
If you are talking to a friend who’s mother is conscious but in the last few days of a terminal illness, or a person who’s 18 year old daughter just lost a leg in an automobile accident, or in another case, a son is endeavoring for the fourth time to break out of a prison which is drug abuse? Cases like that do not make for pleasant conversation.
Reality must be dealt with! Refusal to face concrete agony immediately present to us is NO HELP to anyone. The suffering person in his or her family is in dire straits. Courage is required. The manifestation of courage by bystanders is a very real and measurable gift to that situation. We should not avoid placing ourselves in to those circumstances with calm faith and an understanding that ultimately, suffering produces spiritual benefits even in the face of physical tragedy.
One of the most wonderful things that Jesus said to His apostles was “Do not be afraid”. Let’s stand together, in pain as well as in celebration. Let’s support each other in tears and difficulty, as well as in laughter and joy. We are together.
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