Monday, September 30, 2013

Empathy in the Heart & Sympathy from the Head

There is a genre of humor known as the “reversal joke.”  It begins with a statement about what life is like in one place and then a second statement about how life is exactly the opposite somewhere else.  The Ukrainian comedian Yakov Smirnoff is the current master of the reversal joke.  Here are three of his best lines:

In America, you have remote controls.
   In Russia, remote controls you.

In America, you try to find Waldo
   In Russia, Waldo finds you.

In America, you can always find a party.
   In Russia, Party finds you.

Reversal jokes.  It might be fair to label the reading we just heard a “reversal parable,” but there is nothing funny about it.  Its premise is pretty straight-forward: everything about this life will be reversed in the age to come.  The rich man will find the tables turned.  He will suffer physical pain and deprivation for eternity while the destitute and diseased beggar from this world will be blessed with all the comforts of Heaven. 

It interests me that once he is in Hades twice the rich man mentions Lazarus by name.  The implication is that he knew Lazarus in the previous life.  He knew his name and surely knew of his plight.  He was not unaware, but rather indifferent.  Dressed in the most expensive cloths and eating lavish meals at every sitting, not once was he moved to help the man laying by the gate of his home; a man whose name he knew.  It truly is ponderous how someone with so much could do so little for a person so close in such great need. 

I am confident that if any of you saw someone laying of the ground propped up against one of our church walls this morning - a person who was in obvious need of food, water, and medical attention – I am confident you would do something to help that person, especially if you knew him or her by name.  Adam Smith, the great Scottish moral philosopher, once wrote, “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.”  The flip side of this statement holds none of us could be at peace knowing that a person just outside the door was suffering and in pain.

The reason for this is at our core we are moral people.  At a certain point in our development as a species we gained the capacity for empathy and sympathy.  Empathy involves sharing in the feelings of another because you have been there yourself, or at least have been in a similar situation.  Sympathy involves understanding the feelings of another even though you don’t personally share in them.  You empathize with someone because at one time or another you walked the same path they are on.  When you sympathize you stand apart from the other but still appreciate the position he or she is in.  You image something of what it would be like to walk in the other person’s shoes.

I can empathize with a person who is divorced or who lost their father early in life because I have experienced both.  I can sympathize with a person who is homeless or an addict because I have an understanding of each while never experiencing either personally.

Both capacities are important if we are going to live morally in this world.  The most fundamental ethical obligation of the Christian tradition is the Golden Rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  Every great religious tradition teaches this very basic imperative.  It asks us to imagine ourselves as the other.  It calls us to empathy, to sympathy, and to action.

Frans de Waal, a professor at Emory University who specializes in primate behavior, has detected elements of sympathy, empathy, and other forms of moral behavior in many different animals.  He argues that any species with a social arrangement cannot exist without rudiments of sympathy and empathy.  He argues that as animal brains become more complex they acquire additional layers of moral capacity.  de Waal says that we are not selfish spheres covered by a thin layer of moral veneer, but rather more like one of those nesting dolls.  If you open up one moral doll there is another inside it and inside that is another and then another.  At the core is something all social animals share, which de Waal calls the “emotional contagion.”  All the surrounding dolls add to moral capacity and make each species distinct from others, with human beings being capable of mastering complex moral dilemmas.

It is an interesting theory that debunks an earlier view of human nature, often supported by the church.  The old view held that humans are brutish animals kept in line (barely at times) by the teachings of religion; that we are just 10 Commandments removed from anarchy.  de Waals’ work suggests moral and amoral behavior have developed in us side by side.  We are a complex mixture of self-interest and social connectedness.  We can exhibit both selflessness and aggression, cooperation and competition.  Our empathetic nature seeks emotional connection with others.  Our sympathetic nature generates concern for their well-being.  The teachings of our faith, stories like the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, become a significant moral layer added on top of millennia of moral development and point us toward a way of being that is necessary and beneficial to all. 

If we read carefully today’s parable we will see that it has two distinct parts with a transition in between.  The first part is the reversal where the rich man suffers in Hades while Lazarus receives the comforts of Heaven.  The transition comes when the rich man asks Abraham to comfort him and Abraham’s explanation of why he can’t.  The second part of the parable revolves around the rich man’s request to send Lazarus back to his family to warn his brothers what will happen to them if they don’t change.  This too Abraham cannot do.  Besides, says Abraham, they already have the teachings of Moses and prophets.  They have what they need in order to know what to do and how to act, but they choose to ignore it and to do what they like.

The second part of the parable reminds us that if we want to influence the moral life of people around us then we have to be living examples of the morality we hope to encourage.  Do you want your children to be truthful?  If so, don’t lie.  Do you want your children to respect the dignity of every human being?  If so, you must live out what it means to be respectful of every person in every situation.  Do you want your children to be forgiving?  If so, then you must forgive.  Do you want your children to care about the needs of others?  Then you must show them how to act out of empathy and sympathy.

Empathy.  A few years ago a woman was diagnosed with breast cancer.  Ever since, she and her family have participated in The Walk for a Cure.  Sympathy.  We all have access to clean, reliable drinking water.  Upon learning that parts of the world don’t, we raised $1,500 last Lent so that a village could have a well.  Our faith and our nature call us to respond to the needs we feel – to be empathetic.  They also call on us to respond to the needs we know and understand – to be sympathetic.  One is a response of the heart, the other of the head.  The connections we make – no matter how thin or short – matter.  They endure from this world into the next.  The connections we shun – the times we isolate and insolate ourselves from the needs of others – matter too.  They also endure from this world to the next.  May your heart always move you and may your head always guide you to do for others what your would have them do for you if your places were reversed.