On Empathy

We all carry around burdens, gnawing issues that distract us. On this topic, Proverbs (12:25) offers the following advice: “A worry in a one’s heart—yash’chena.” The Talmud provides two interpretations of the last word, yash’chena: the first sees it as an expression meaning “forget,” to turn one’s mind away.  Read this way, the simple instruction is to find a way to “remove all concerns from the mind”

The second interpretation understands the word yesichena, as “to discuss.” Plugging this meaning into the verse, the solution to a worry comes through consulting others.  The Tzemach Tzedek, a leading 19th century halachic authority and Chassidic master, expounds the interpretation, “to discuss with others,” noting that the conversation should be with those who are “others” only in the bodily sense, yet are united on the soul level—they can empathize.

On Empathy:

In Jewish thought, human character—the heart of each person— contains seven general attributes, known as middot (measurements). The first is chesed (loving-kindness), commonly termed “the right hand;” the desire to bestow benevolence upon another. The left, gevurah (severity or discipline), pulls in the opposite direction, and limits the giving. The third and central function of heart, the mainstay of emotions, is termed tiferet, from which stem the traits of compassion and empathy.

In this system, the distinction between chesed (love) and the central emotion of tiferet (empathy) is that love evokes a natural desire to do good to another, while empathy entails actually living and experiencing the other’s situation. Thus, empathy arouses a deeper necessity within the soul to shower one’s altruism; it is also more difficult to feel.

In this vein, a friend recently asked me a hard question: “what if I don’t have a lot of empathy? Where does that deficiency come from?”

Without daring to tackle such a complex question, I offered some general comments: The lack of empathy often stems from a sophisticated survival mentality, beginning in childhood with an ambitious parent who emphasizes that this world is a rough place; it’s important to get ahead of the competition. As the mind and heart are conditioned to be self-serving, acts of “giving” are mainly to protect one’s image or soothe the conscience: “I want to feel good about myself,” or “I don’t want to be known as a selfish person.”

Red Flag Comments:

Genuine concern for others—getting too involved—seems to pose a threat to one’s personal advancement. When seeing someone in trouble, the mind finds justification for why “you can’t help everyone you encounter,” or how the rules of life are such that “G-d helps those who help themselves.” She got herself into this mess by making bad decisions; I need to focus on myself right now.

After listening to someone seeking advice, a person short empathy may remark “Don’t worry; it’ll all work out,” feeling that with these encouraging words, they have fulfilled their dose of compassion and can freely move on. One of my favorites is when so called people of faith answer, “I’ll keep you in my prayers.” That statement can resemble a pious version of “not my circus, not my monkeys,” insensitivity dressed in noble garb.

In Jewish ethics, if indeed you comfort with such phrases— be sure to follow through with tearful prayer! Say a chapter of tehillim (psalms); plead for that person during your next prayer. But most importantly, if you truly care, inquire how you can help with mental or material means. Then, check on your friend’s progress.

Intelligent Imagination:

Next question: “How can I work on empathy?” A prime pathway to changing the heart begins with the mind.  Become more curious about what the person is experiencing. Start by finding some equivalence inside yourself. Recognize that when people suffer, there are consequences—it matters in the grand scheme.

During our conversation, I discovered that the person asking “how do I work on empathy” felt bad that, although he had the means, he didn’t run to volunteer to give blood or donate to the holocaust museum, seeking charitable opportunities like some of his colleagues.

I told him to worry less about those big acts. Rather, practice interacting better with people in your immediate environment, those who cross your path daily. For example let’s say you go to the supermarket late at night and are busy checking out, instead of looking down on your phone, thinking about your next errand while your groceries are being bagged, understand that in front of you is a stranger trying to make a living; Though he or she may appear to have nothing in common, every person is a unique human being. Imagine, for a second, how their life is. Make conversation, try and maximize the interaction.

Every interaction is a golden opportunity to learn, to see G-d’s hand moving in the world. Keep the eyes and heart open. Focus on small deeds and feelings until you progress in becoming less exclusive in your caring and connecting.



soul powers

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