Empathy and Spirituality

“The universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.” -Thomas Berry

In my search to understand spirituality, empathy keeps showing up on the periphery. It’s never center stage, not the way compassion is. Compassion is like empathy’s big famous brother. But, I’m beginning to think that empathy is the quiet, unspoken genuis.

Okay, that’s an unfair set-up. As though compassion was a brazen profiteer, an Edison to the Telsa- empathy. But, I do wonder why empathy is overlooked.  Maybe it’s more difficult than the simple kindness that we easily label as compassion.

Kohut, a psychologist from the early 20th c., transformed my understanding of empathy.  Part of his work was to understand why therapy is effective.

It’s not interpretation: I think we can all agree on this. Knowing why we feel anxious doesn’t make the anxiety go away. Kindness is nice. It soothes anxiety. But, it too doesn’t really heal. Hypnosis would be really convenient and make the world a bit more magical. But it isn’t generally effective.  Each of these are helpful, but none seem to be the essence of what cures.

So, what cures? Kohut’s answer was empathy. This insight transformed the field of psychoanalysis, and continues to guide practice today.

We think of empathy as walking a mile in another’s shoes. Less poetically, it is our attempt to appreciate another’s subjective experience. These are great things. My imagination starts to buzz though when Kohut moves beyond this normal understanding to describe empathy as a psychological nutriment. Like oxygen to the body, empathy is vital to the mind.

Empathy is what heals the psyche. Of course healing is more complicated than this, but the complications don’t change Kohut’s insight that empathy is like food for our minds.

I believe this challenges all of our typical assumptions about who we are and how the world functions. From here my imagination wants to take off into the stratosphere of speculation, dreaming of interconnectedness. The post-modern world is a lonely place, with everyone lost in their own personal worlds. I like to dream of empathy bridging those gaps.

As much as I love meta-physical speculation, we don’t have to escape into imagination to find wonder. Wonder is on the ground.

Right here for example: recent research shows that animals have empathy too! That’s more wonderful than anything I could dream up. Connor Wood wrote a great article reviewing this research. The best part is that they weren’t studying primates or even dogs. Those would be an easy sell. But rats? I loved Fievel and Ratatouie, but rats aren’t exactly endearing creatures. Yet, this research suggests that they also have empathy.

So, empathy is oxygen for the psyche. And, even “low” mammals show empathy. These two insights are what lead me to believe that empathy is deeply connected to spirituality. I hesitate to make any claims about that connection. To make those claims, I’d have to explore the links of psychological health and spirituality. I’d also have to explore all those questions about our specialness within nature, are we distinct from animals and why do we care?

Those questions would be enough for an entire career. Instead I just wanted to give empathy a little time in the limelight. As research continues, my bet is that empathy ends up being just as important as it’s big buddy compassion.