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Little lessons on empathy

by Dora

A month or two ago, sitting in Sunday School with my friend Cruelestmonth, I had an epiphany. The lesson was on “The C Word,” otherwise known as Correlation. A fine, young, True Blue Mormon girl was chirping about how much comfort she finds in the fact that, everywhere, around the world, Latter-day Saints are being taught the exact same lesson. Cruelestmonth and I looked at each other and, it must be said, rolled our eyes. Neither of us derived much satisfaction from the fact that Correlation basically dissolved the independence of the Relief Society.

Cruelestmonth leaned over and whispered, “Every time they say that word, a shudder rolls down my body.”

I leaned in and whispered right back, “I know. Then again, maybe that’s how most conservative members of the church feel when they hear the word feminism.” Then we both may have snickered.

Empathy. Despite all the bad press the word received during Justice Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings, and the oft-times apparent lack thereof in the bloggernacle, it’s generally thought to be a good thing. The ability to sympathize, to understand, to identify with someone else.

Christians are counseled to, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” So why is it that as natural people we are prone to love ourselves and not our neighbors? In my mind, it all comes down to empathy. We may love our manicured, perfect lawns, and think our neighbor is crazy and a little sociopathic to grow dandelions. What we may not know is that they grow dandelions because they … 1) want to recreate the Hameau de la Reine at Versailles, 2) make dandelion wine, 3) have no strength to attend to the lawn themselves, nor money to hire gardeners or 4) really are out to devalue your property. The point is, that it’s rather counterproductive to tear your hair out hating them. The more neighborly thing to do is to have a chat. Try for some understanding. See if some sort of compromise can be reached. Maybe confine the dandelions to a specific area of the backyard? Help make a greenhouse so that stray dandelion parachutes don’t infect your own lawn? Help them with the gardening? Befriend them so they no longer hate you? Try walking in their shoes a while …

Well, that’s fine and good for such a little thing like the front lawn. What about something big, like abortion? Last year, I was visiting with an old friend. We’d been good friends and roommates for a number of years, both being faithful, single, LDS women with good careers. Neither of us liked the fact of abortion, but conceded that it was an issue best combated with education, and not abolishment. I reluctantly let her leave the apartment when she got married, and she had since had a beautiful baby boy.

That afternoon, our conversation turned to women’s rights, and sidled over to abortion. I confess that I was stunned when my friend stated that her views had radically changed. After having had her son, she could no longer see how anyone could support abortion, and was becoming more convinced that a blanket ban was a good thing.

Hmmmm. I could understand the precious feelings she had for new baby. And the fact that her politics often swayed more in sync with her more conservative husband’s. But I admit that I was dismayed. Not even the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints supported a blanket ban on abortion, recognizing that there are cases (rape, incest, health of the mother come to mind) when it may be thoughtfully considered. To my mind, I was dismayed that my friend had narrowed her view on this issue so much that it allowed for no other views. A myriad thoughts flooded my mind. What about women who are impregnated by their rapists? What about pregnancies where the health of the mother is gravely endangered by an unviable fetus? What happen if abortion is made illegal? It won’t really stop the practice for the truly desperate! What happens if a generation passes and there is no one left to safely perform the procedure? What would you want if it were yourself, your sister, your mother, your friend, or your child who needed (for whatever reason) an abortion? I wish I had talked more about it with her then, instead of letting my discomfort steer me towards other, safer topics of conversation.

Another area in which I find little empathy is the discussion on women receiving the priesthood. The pro-side deride the con-side for being mindless and shortsighted. The con-side deride the pro-side for being faithless and feminist. I admit that I fall on the pro-side. I can understand women who say that they don’t want it for themselves … too busy, enough to do already, don’t want to diminish the role of men in the church. Fair enough. But I can’t understand those who don’t want women in the church to have the priesthood, period. Even the church doesn’t support a blanket ban on priesthood for women. At some point in the future (decades, centuries, millenia, some period outside of time?), I fully expect to be a priestess. Even now, I can imagine times when women would be glad to hold the priesthood … when there are not enough worthy male priesthood holders to administer to the congregation, or when a child or husband needs an urgent blessing.

So, all in all, I think we could all be improved by the injection of a little more empathy. Myself included. I can’t count the times when an infusion of empathy has blessed my life. Being able to to talk with a friend and feel understood and loved. Having someone trust me with their confidences, and being able to catch a glimpse of their soul. Luckily, our is a gospel that promotes empathy. We believe that we will be judged by one who has a complete and sympathetic understanding of our triumphs and trials. We are commanded to mourn with those that mourn, and give comfort to those who stand in need of comfort. And really, is there any greater comfort than to have been heard and understood? If you have stories to tell about times when you’ve connected with another person and felt or received empathy, please share!


Dora is a pediatric critical care nurse. Therapy to alleviate the stress in her professional life include traveling around the world, reading, partner dancing and hosting dinner parties.

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13 Responses

  1. mraynes says:

    I love this post, Dora. In my opinion, if we all exhibited a little more empathy a lot of the world’s problems would be solved immediately. I try to remember that there are seasons to life and things I struggle with today might not be problems tomorrow.

    An example from my own life parallels one you gave. I have always been pro-choice but I moderated after the birth of my two children. I think this is perfectly natural, it’s impossible to go through that experience and not come out profoundly changed. Of course, for me that season didn’t last long. Now that I have two very active toddlers and I am constantly stressed and overwhelmed, I’m back to my more liberal abortion opinion. 🙂

    We all have things in our lives that our difficult and painful and because of this we are designed to be empathetic creatures. So even if we don’t struggle with what our neighbor struggles with, if we don’t agree with their experience, it behooves us as human beings to understand that pain.

  2. Caroline says:

    Dora, this is a wonderful post. Amen to empathy. Amen to being listened to. You make great points throughout.

    I especially like your discussion of abortion and priesthood for women. These issues are so complex and so personal. I think it’s fine to say that this is what I want for myself (to never get abortion, to be pro-choice, to not want priesthood, to want priesthood, etc.) But you’re right to warn us against trying to universalize our own feelings on the rest of humanity.

    I’m taking an ethics course right now, and these questions come up a lot. Wanting to come up with big universals that apply to everyone is called deontology. I’m more of an ethics of responsibility or an ethics of care person. What is ethical for me is not universal ideas, it’s the concern and the care that the person in front of me needs at this moment. Of course, we’re all a mix, but I think that’s how I trend.

  3. Deborah says:

    Dora, you are a class act.

  4. Rosebud says:

    I like the way this post touches the fact that we, as human beings, change our opinions/positions depending upon our current life experiences. Maybe the recognition that with time and experience we’re likely to reevaluate and adjust helps us develop the empathy needed to consider others’ opinions as valuable. There’s the chance that if we were to walk a few blocks in our neighbors’ shoes, we might think/feel/act similarly. Empathy may, then, partially be a product of recognizing one’s own transient nature and of caring enough to believe that whatever position the person next door holds, it may not only be transient, but justified.

    It’s kind of cool that we’re in this place called life that allows us to have enough disparate experiences to be able to see the same issues from contrasting perspectives and to therefore (hopefully) be able to develop a little empathy along the way.

    Thanks for your thoughts Dora.

  5. Sterling Fluharty says:

    One day in high school my good friend Wendy and I were talking about empathy and sympathy. We knew that lots of people used the terms interchangeably. But we were good Mormons and we thought we knew better. To us sympathy was inferior to empathy. Christ was the epitome of empathy, since he suffered for our sins and therefore truly understood what we felt and experienced in this life. Sympathy, as we saw it, could consist of little more than a well-meaning desire or wish to feel what another person felt. And since we were supposed to be charitable, we decided that it was better to develop empathy than to settle for sympathy.

    These days I wonder if the standards I have set for empathy are in fact uncharitable. Maybe I am lacking in compassion if I have come to expect that nobody I meet will ever truly understand me. It could be cynical for me to note that neither the words empathy nor sympathy appear in the scriptures. Following politics has me almost convinced that most Americans will never abandon their preconceived beliefs. And it hasn’t escaped my attention that I live in a country where the definition of a bleeding heart liberal is someone who is too sympathetic.

  6. Anon says:

    I attended an Institute class where a stake president/Seminary teacher director taught the class. He valued EVERY comment and listened empathetically to EVERYONE. After several months, people felt free sharing their sorrows, testimony concerns, and spiritual needs.

    I have never seen greater spiritual growth, learning, and validation in a Church setting. I’ve tried to model my teaching after his example and found great success in teaching the youth in our last ward. However, we moved to a VERY conservative and rigid area where the leaders only want the lessons regurgitated without any variance. I feel stifled and spiritual dead in the classes. It is hard to know that many in the class need to have real issues addressed and must give only rote answers in order to be accepted.

  7. It would be much easier to have empathy if other people didn’t have so many dumb ideas!

  8. Just a small note about the big C. Correlation can’t take away all the personality of individual Relief Societies. Since living in Germany I feel like there are a lot of little differences that make my ward unique. I don’t see a lot of Relief Society here since I’m in the Primary, but I see, for example, the apple break implemented for the primary kids. And meetings being shortened by fifteen minutes so kids can handle them. And the way the ward choir uses this really old sacred songs book as well as Reformation songs that just grab at your heart.

  9. Stella says:

    Thank you so much for this post. My job is based on empathy, but I know that I still have so much to learn and to be reminded of.

  10. EmilyCC says:

    What a great post! I remember hearing a woman’s intro talk in a ward and thinking, “Oh goodness, we are not alike in ANY way!” The next week, we were working together on the Enrichment committee.

    It was a little rocky at first, but the longer we worked together, the more I liked her and the more we were able to have deeper discussions. I ended up learning a lot from her about mothering, maybe she learned a thing or two from me about feminism.

    I wonder if the current structure of the block program in church is conducive to helping members develop more empathy. (Of course, I have no idea how it could be better!)

  11. x2dora says:

    Thanks for all the great comments!

    mraynes: Yes, it definitely behooves us a human beings to understand another’s pain. I’d even say it’s godly. How else can one develop the love necessary to being deity in embryo?

    Caroline: As you put it, I’m not a big fan of deontology. Aside from a universal need for human beings to feel loved, I’m not sure I think there are any others …

    Deborah: ditto.

    Rosebud: I agree that walking in another’s shoes is an excellent way for each of us to learn from each other and grow to be better people.

    Sterling: To each according to their ability. For some people, learning to sympathize with someone else may be a huge accomplishment. At least it’s a starting point …

    With empathy, there must be a bit of give and take, right? There has to be a desire to understand, the willingnesss to share, the willingness to receive, and the attempt to understand. As for scriptural references, I’m not surprised that the terms don’t appear. I tend to think that these concepts are fairly new.

  12. x2dora says:

    Anon: A good friend of mine says, “The church is truer in some areas than others.” Not that the gospel is less true, but that local leaders can drastically affect how differenct aspects of the gospel are taught. I’m interested to see how the RS/PH lessons progress, given that there is far more time for discussion and less material to lecture about.

    Course Correction: Ha! Isn’t that what everyone is saying?

    Michelle: Sounds like you have local leaders that are responsive to the needs of the members there. Amit that I’m slightly envious.

    Stella: Me too.

    EmilyCC: I’ve had lots of the same experience. I find that as I get to learn more about strangers, that they are not as strange as I’d initially thought. Or, more to the point, we recognize more of ourselves in each other. I try to remember this whenever I grumble about having to work with someone I haven’t learned to like yet. And I think that is one of the reasons that there can be so much antogonism in the bloggernacle. We can only read what someone has posted, and it’s a very small window into what is actually going on in their real-time life.

  1. February 24, 2010

    […] peppy piano accompaniment to revitalize our dirge-like hymn singing.  2) Excommunicate the Curriculum Correlation Committee —for driving droves of life-long members from church by the endless repetition of “milk before […]

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