Learning Empathy

You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. -Exodus 23:9

Dear members and friends,

The past eight days or so have been quite troublesome and deeply concerning to all of us. On top of this unprecedented challenge of a pandemic, we were faced with racial injustice followed by aggressive reactions by many. Reading and watching what has been going on, I cannot help but to deeply meditate on this question: how did we end up in this sorrowful state where we neither trust each other nor listen to each other? Then, my 10 years old daughter asked me an even more challenging question, “Daddy, what is wrong with people?” Indeed, what is wrong with us all?

As I meditate on the matter in prayer, one word arose in my mind with utmost importance: empathy. Somehow many of us have lost or are losing this essential ability, empathy. According to English dictionary, empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” After all, humans are emotional beings whose feelings are often weighted with more importance than rationality might dictate. In other words, how we feel often dominates our mind more than we realize. Therefore, it’s an essential process to understand the feelings of another before engaging with the person, especially when the other is expressing pain in the heart.

The challenge of empathy is that it is not an innate ability nor can it be learned from textbooks, classes or workshops. As it is stated in Exodus 23:9, “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt,” empathy can only be cultivated by understanding and processing one’s own pain and experiences properly, and thus acknowledging and understanding both the situation and feelings of others as if they are one’s own. Indeed, true empathy could be quite hard to cultivate. Perhaps that is why Jesus gave this as the commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:31) Here, the word love in Greek is agape, which is the love that works towards what is genuinely good for the receiver. In order to act out agape, the first thing to be done is to listen and understand how the other is feeling. After all, loving means to wish for and to be willing to do anything for another’s joy and happiness.

Blessings, Rev. Junchol Lee