As I was thinking about what I wanted my first post as a perma to be about, I decided to talk about what I know. I’m a developmental psychologist and spend a lot of time thinking about how my academic work interfaces with my ‘faith work.’
Lately I’ve been doing some work on moral development. There are three main theoretical approaches people take when talking about the development of morality: evolutionary, socialization, and cognitive. Most of my work falls in the cognitive camp, but I’ve been thinking a lot about evolutionary psych approaches lately. These theorists tend to focus mainly on moral emotions (things like shame, guilt, remorse, compassion, sympathy, and empathy). Empathy is probably the most studied and least understood of any of these. There is some disagreement about how to even define it, but as far as I’ve been able to untangle it, empathy is an emotional response where an individual experiences or mirrors the (usually negative) emotion that another individual is experiencing. Empathy can develop in to either sympathy, which is feeling for someone, or personal distress, which reflects an inability to separate your emotional distress from the other person who is actually in distress. Either way, empathy is the starting point.
It’s sort of amazing; the ability to have empathy is present in extremely young children. Contagious crying (where a baby starts crying when they hear another baby crying) has been observed in infants as young as 6 hours old, as well as in every sacrament meeting ever. Even more amazing is that infants show more distress at the cries of others than in response to recordings of their own cries.
As I’ve been reading about this, it started me thinking. The whole idea of sharing another’s emotions sounded really familiar:
“And it came to pass that he said unto them: Behold, here are the waters of Mormon (for thus they were called) and now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens that they may be light;
Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death, that ye may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, that ye may have eternal life” (Mosiah 18:8 & 9, italics added)
Part of coming in to ‘the fold of God’ is mourning with those that mourn. That is empathy. We are instructed to develop our empathic abilities.
We are also instructed to follow Christ. Who was more empathic than Jesus? He shared all of our emotions through the atonement. Even before that, though, there are multiple stories of Christ sharing the pain of others. My favorite example is when Lazarus dies.
“When Jesus therefore saw her (Mary) weeping, and the Jews also weeping which came with her, he groaned in the spirit, and was troubled, and said, where have ye laid him?
They said unto him, Lord, come and see.
Jesus wept” (John 11:33-35)
There are a lot of ways to interpret this passage, but the way I read it is that Jesus was feeling with his friends and disciples. He knew that Lazarus would live again, but still he took the time to share the sorrow of those around him. He did not dismiss their tears, or make them feel silly in their grief. He cried with them instead. This is the example we are supposed to follow.
I, perhaps more than a little ironically, have the most trouble showing empathy for those who don’t show empathy for others. This is especially apparent to me when I read some of the comments on Ordain Women, or on some of the blog posts here. I recently had an experience with some of my friends from church; someone brought up how much they were upset by all the feminist actions of church members recently, and how they just didn’t ‘get’ it. It struck me at the time how little this person had tried to understand the pain and hurt that so many women in the church feel, and that made me frustrated and defensive. But as I was thinking later, I realized that I was equally quick to dismiss their distress. I could have been so much more effective at communicating if I had taken the time to acknowledge my friend’s perspective. How often is this true in our day to day lives? How can we work to foster empathy and understanding, towards everyone? It’s hard work, believe me, I struggle with this all the time. But in the end, isn’t that kind of the point?