group hug II









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?


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10 Responses

  1. April says:

    Thank you for this reminder. I do find it difficult to empathize with people who manifest their distress by lashing out at people with different (my) opinions, but it is still distress, and I should learn to empathize.

  2. spunky says:

    What a powerful post for your first post!

    I have thought about the points you have brought it up as well… just recently, a friend commented something to the effect of, “Does OW like ANY of the GAs?” I responded by saying we liked and sustained them all as members of the church, and that we are seeking for something more. That thought had never occurred to her, and she was softened… yet I was also softened because she is exhausted in trying to sustain her bishop husband and finds balance in her marriage by giving even more to motherhood at this time when her husband is virtually absent from family life at this time. Seeing it as a calling for both if them (him as a bishop and her as a mother)- thought she could not make the words to express how in her mind it worked– helped her to feel like their family was still as one. Whilst I don’t understand her exact position, I could empathize with the sense of mission one’s spouse and the powerful desire to want to do what is best for your family and still serve others.

    Empathy is powerful. And as you said, it blows me away knowing children as young as 6 months feel empathy. That makes me feel like it is even a more powerfully God-given gift.

    Love that you are a perma here! Love this post!

  3. Caroline says:

    Thanks for this great post, Jess R. I absolutely love your reading of Jesus during Lazarus’ death. I’m totally going to use this episode of Jesus weeping, even while knowing Lazarus would be resurrected, when I teach a lesson or give a talk.

  4. Libby says:

    Jess R., thank you for this reminder! I’m going to actively, thoughtfully work on this. Or at least try.

  5. Em says:

    I really like this post. I feel like you articulated what I could not say about how I felt over the furor around General Conference. I felt so sick at heart from the vitriol, and I wanted to feel like I could see both sides of it, where the anger was coming from, but I really struggled to do so. Thanks for this reminder.

    My goal for empathy this year has been to avoid approaching other people’s problems with the mentality of “at least.” It is hard not to do this mentally but at the very least I’ve been trying to zip it verbally. You have morning sickness? At least you’re pregnant. That sort of thing. I feel like doing that is an attempt, however unconscious, to erase or nullify someone else’s pain not out of love, but because their pain is inconvenient to me. Its a sort of subtle one upsmanship sometimes too. Anyway, great post!

  6. Cruelest Month says:

    Thank you for this reminder that we are all capable of empathy and that the Savior taught we should show empathy. My problem is that I like that feeling of righteous indignation when I just know that I am on the side of justice, babies, nice people and everything good in the world. To take a step back and consider kindness, listening, and the possibility that I might be wrong requires an enormous amount of energy. No doubt it is good for me! Your post makes me want to give the empathy muscles a little more exercise.

  7. Jenny says:

    Beautiful post! I have been thinking about this a lot lately too. I have been so frustrated with the unwillingness of people to even try to understand OW, but I know I haven’t tried as hard as I could to be empathetic myself. Only a year and a half ago I was one of those people who thought the priesthood was only for men, so I should understand, but like you said, empathy is hard work.

  8. ESO says:

    Great stuff, Jess.

  9. Ziff says:

    I really like this, Jess, particularly the connection to mourning with those that mourn. (And the babies’ contagious crying. 🙂 )

  1. May 21, 2014

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