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4 Ways to develop empathy according to Edith Stein



Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 08/13/17

Struggling with jealousy, anger, or lack of kindness? The brilliant St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross can help.

Do you ever emotionally lose it (maybe just a little bit) when looking at social media feeds and seeing friends on glamorous vacations, eating amazing food, taking zany selfies, and having the time of their life? It doesn’t feel good, right? To be jealous, to question why so-and-so deserves these great experiences, to grow increasingly anxious that everyone else is #blessed while you’re at home eating leftovers and chilling in front of your laptop.

But according to studies, we all have at least some issues with social media. This is at least in part because we struggle to cope with the psychological effect that the lives of others are more interesting than ours. I’m not sure this should be our reaction, though. Why would the happiness of others make us depressed?

We could all use some help with developing more empathy. Empathy means not only sharing the sorrow or joy of another, but actually entering into it. Truly empathetic people don’t find social media a playground for the green-eyed monster, but look at the photos of friends having a great time and are genuinely happy to hit that “like” button. Even more, seeing those pictures doesn’t make them jealous – it makes them happy, almost as if the experience was their very own.

I’m not quite there yet.

I mean, even though I’ve intentionally practiced empathy over the years and I’ve come a long way — although my brother just rode his bicycle up a mountain to watch a stage of the Tour de France and I’ll never forgive him that I wasn’t there, too! — it would be stretching the truth to claim that the joy of others truly becomes my joy.

Edith Stein is here to help. Recently we commemorated the 75th anniversary of her death in a Nazi death camp, where she was well known for her caring and empathetic attitude with fellow prisoners. Earlier in her life, Edith was philosophy student and her first major work was titled On the Problem with Empathy. Her insight into the topic has tremendous depth and, as her own life shows, has practical value. Here are some of the insights I’ve gleaned from her writing that are helping me grow in empathy …

Get out of your own head

As is generally the case, I’m most comfortable in my own mind. It’s easy to be at home and kick up my feet at the fire of my own mental hearth. We’re all like this because we intimately understand our thought process, internal motivations, and emotions such as what makes us happy and what makes us sad. The mind of another person, though, isn’t so comfortable. It’s more like traveling to a foreign country. The landmarks are unfamiliar and visitors can easily get lost. Empathy is the road map. Without it, good luck getting where you’re going (in my foreign travels, it’s always to the gelato shop).

To understand another person, we have to get out of our own minds and transcend our internal drama. Empathy is, among other things, a way of learning to appreciate foreign experiences. In the same way that travel broadens the mind, so too does looking at the face of another person and glimpsing another beautiful, mysterious, unique mind. The effort is always worth it.

Notice others

This may seem simple, but to be empathetic, we actually need to notice other people. Once we manage to break out of our inner dialogue and get out of our own minds — and our phones! — it’s important to pay close attention. This means more than simply noticing a happy face or a sad face and finding it interesting. Paying attention is the ability to be totally present to another person with no distraction. This means that when I speak to a friend, I shouldn’t be merely waiting my turn to speak about what I actually want to talk about. I should be listening to that person and putting my own agenda on the back-burner.

One of the examples that Edith gives of an empathy-blocker is, “I am completely filled with grief over a bereavement at the moment my friend tells me the joyful news.” How hard is it to not rain on a friend’s parade with sad news? How difficult is it to put an anxiety aside and instead share in their joy? It may or may not be possible in all situations, but if we at least attempt to make a gift of giving another our full attention, our ability to be empathetic will drastically increase.

Practice love

The best reason I can think of from the example above to put aside a deep, personal grief in favor of the joy of a friend is because I love my friend. To say that empathy can be developed through love isn’t to say that we have to be fake and skip around and declare undying love for everyone, ignoring our own feelings. By love, I mean the habit of willingness to sacrifice our own needs out of a desire to promote the happiness of others.

The process goes both ways, too, and if you have good friends around you, they’ll be willing to set aside their joy in favor of comforting you in your grief, or to set aside grief in order to celebrate your joy with you. In short, it’s a genuine relationship in which each person thinks of the other first. When we love someone as a friend or simply as a fellow human being, it’s much easier to share his joy and pain.

See persons, not labels

It’s much easier to write someone off and dismiss his motives and feelings if we have labeled him as part of a crowd. For instance, it’s no problem at all to lack empathy for a political party, or rival team, ethnic group, or religion. This nameless, faceless crowd can be dismissed without ever having to confront that it’s made up of real-live human beings who deserve our empathy (even if we don’t end up agreeing with them). It’s much harder to ignore a person with a name, an individual with a unique face and personality. A person is more than the sum of the parts, and as a community of persons, we each find our own place in it only by interacting with and understanding other individuals. We aren’t cogs in a machine, and the more open we are to acknowledging how special each person is, the more empathetic we will be in our interactions.

As Edith Stein shows with her heroic practice of empathy, even in the worst of situations we can reach out to other people, understand them, find solidarity together, and know that no one ever has to be alone.

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