Greed is out, empathy is in.
–Frans de Waal
One of my classes in Oxford was titled, Empathy, Religious Practice and Ethical Action. At the heart of this class was the question: Do you need empathy for moral action? It was taught by Dr. Jane Shaw, dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, California (@deanjaneshaw). The class focused on research she is doing on Moral Imagination and empathy’s role in religious practice and ethical action.
We began the class by looking at several definitions of empathy. From the Oxford English Dictionary, empathy is defined as: “The power of projecting one’s personality into (and so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation.” Another definition states: “the quality or state of being thus affected by the suffering or sorrow of another; a feeling of compassion and commiseration.” But my favorite definition was: “Empathy means that you travel out of yourself a little or expand.”
Rebecca Solnit in her book, The Faraway Nearby writes:
Some empathy must be learned and then imagined, by perceiving the suffering of others and translating it into one’s own experience of suffering and thereby suffering a little with them. Empathy can be a story you tell yourself about what it must be like to be that other person…You make that person into yourself, you inscribe their suffering on your own body or heart or mind, and then you respond to their suffering as though it were your own.
I returned home Saturday to learn about the situation in Moore Square – that an organization that has been feeding the homeless for six years has been told that if they continue to hand out biscuits to those who are hungry they will be arrested. And I wondered: Where is our empathy? Does empathy make us act any different? What does an empathic society look like/act like?
One of the questions that we discussed in class was: Are there situations in which empathy doesn’t work/isn’t appropriate? It’s a good question. And ultimately, my answer to that question was “yes.” There are situations in which empathy isn’t appropriate. However, as I have reflected on the situation in Moore Square, it would seem to me that our community and community leaders could use a bit more empathy. In other words, they could benefit from traveling out of themselves a little and expanding – to identify a bit more with the people who counted on those biscuits for what may have been their only meal that day.
Frans de Waal in his book, The Age of Empathy, writes: “Greed is out, empathy is in.” What do you think? In Raleigh, in our community, is greed out and empathy in? I would love your thoughts.