In 2017, a prominent Yale psychologist set out to bring an end to empathy. He argued that empathy biases our reason and moral judgment. Society, he said, “ would be measurably more moral if we had no empathy at all.” When asked about the election that year, he claimed empathy in leaders, specifically in a presidential candidate, could do more harm than good. “The best leaders,” he touted, “have a certain enlightened aloofness.”
His solution? We needed to toughen up. Tougher people, tougher borders, tougher policing, tougher judges, tougher Americans. A chorus of voices from philosophers to pastors joined the chant. “Sob stories” they said, “are not a good way to make public policy.”
Turns out people listened. Welcome to a world without empathy.
Watching the events of the last several years—the anger, the pain, the division—has brought me to my knees. I’ve wondered how we fell so far, so fast. I’ve grieved over strained, if not broken, friendships. I’ve asked myself if it can possibly get any worse?
Well, yes, actually.
In the annals of history, we can directly trace the loss of empathy to the rise of atrocities, moments when ideologies sanctioned evil by giving permission. It usually begins with sarcasm, even “acceptable” humor where people are labeled—a name, an adjective, a disparaging tone. From there it quickly slips into contempt, what philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer refers to as “the unsullied conviction of the worthlessness of another.” Sadly, contempt can turn into cruelty and worse, downright evil, such as slavery, torture, violence or ethnic cleansing. Full blown, this inability to empathize inspires the likes of suicide bombers, school shooters, lynch mobs and cult leaders.
The consequences of “the end of empathy” are troubling to say the least. Without empathy, we isolate, grow fearful, begin to hate, and ultimately fight. Relationships fall apart. People take revenge. Brothers takes up arms and start wars.
The saddest part may be this: for many, we don’t even care that we don’t care.
No matter who wins the election, we face a long and difficult slog to restore empathy in our families, neighborhoods, churches and country. The day after the election we will be no less divided than we are now—maybe more so.
Sadly, empathy is usually ill-defined. One camp defines it with the heart. “Can you feel me?” they ask. The other looks to the mind. “Do you get me? Both limit empathy, whether with warm fuzzies or cold reason.
True empathy requires both an engaged mind and a beating heart. God calls us to love with our whole heart, soul and mind (Matthew 22:37). Jesus made his dwelling with us, giving us his passion (empathy, empathos, means “with passion”) and unconditional love. He invites us to do the same (John 15:12).
For all this gloom and doom, we are not condemned to sing a dirge for America. As followers of Jesus, it’s up to us to help heal our country. But it will take hard work and commitment.
Where do we start?
First, we must recognize empathy as the biblical pathway to loving our neighbor.
Too often, as Christians, we convince ourselves we are better than we think. Tim Keller said, “We naturally believe we are more virtuous, honest and decent than we really are.” So often our love remains abstract, ideal, lofty, not practical. That’s why God calls us to love one another—and especially our neighbors who we don’t like. Empathy provides a practical pathway to learn how to love. It requires us to set aside our assumptions and opinions, to pull back from our judgments and biases so we can really listen. It teaches us take the perspective of another, even our enemies, to admit fault, to forgive.
If we are serious about the great commandment to love our neighbor, if we are committed to follow Jesus in taking up the call to love, we must get serious about empathy. When we do, we can help heal the deep divisions in our country.
Second, we need to recognize empathy contains the power to overcome real-world problems.
A friend of mine once challenged me by saying, “Empathy makes bad policy because empathy brings bias.” But this isn’t true. Our words, actions or policies are best when both our hearts and minds are informed by the people we seek to serve. The confluence of data and real-life stories strengthen, not weaken, our actions. For my friends who think empathy is weak willed and for losers, I argue the converse, whenever a segment of the population is missing from the discussion the policy or action is built on a one-legged stool that is inherently biased and prone to failure.
Finally, empathy is a skill-based virtue, that everyone can learn.
Empathy is not essentially a philosophy, a theory or a feeling. It’s the daily practice of conforming our thoughts and affections toward actions that care for the other, regardless of circumstances. Where shame, fear and dehumanization spread like poison, empathy is the antidote.
I set out to understand empathy not because I was so good at it. My own life was marked by high functioning apathy, camouflaged with a Christian veneer. For me, empathy was some version of being nice. It took a friend, Esperance, a pre-literate woman from one of Africa’s worst conflict zones, to teach me the real thing. Over the course of several years, I learned—and am still learning—what it means to really listen, to take another’s perspective no matter the position, and to transform conflict into peace. These are learned skills that take time, just like other disciplines we pursue. As I have worked with individuals, teams and organizations regarding the power (and disciplines) of empathy, I’ve seen how practical, and radical, empathy can be for repairing, rebuilding and restoring relationships. No matter how battered or broken.
There is good news for the rising tide of Christians who feel called to be part of restoring the fabric of our country post-election. Empathy is not just for feelers, gurus, saints or the politically correct. It is for everyone. Rooted in scripture and science, it is skill based, and can be practiced and mastered like a discipline. I believe it is the only virtue muscular enough for us to meet the complexity and pain of our day because empathy is a pathway to genuinely loving our neighbor. A world without empathy is a world without love, and a world without love is no world at all.
So, welcome America to the day after. We have a choice to make, will we rise up to the challenge, or challenge the uprising? It’s up to us to get serious about leading a revolution of love. Our faith demands it because our Founder gave his life for it.