When I was in college, my father did a kind gesture toward me each Christmas. Part of his professional position was buying huge quantities of very expensive alloy pipe. The company that he bought the pipe from would send him a “token of gratitude,” a catalogue of Christmas gifts he could choose from. These were not trifle gifts either, like a tin of cookies. These were gifts valued in the hundreds of dollars in today’s money and he gave me the catalogue for my own use. I mostly bought backpacking equipment. For example, one Christmas I ordered a real backpack and down sleeping bag, replacing the backpack I had made from a laundry bag and lawn chair, and an old, very heavy, Boy Scout cotton sleeping bag.
Now imagine that you were given a catalogue like this where you could choose one human talent or gift. What would you choose? The gift of song such as a great voice? The gift of writing, running, climbing, or playing chess? What about the gift of earning great sums of money … or good looks?
I’ve thought about this a lot. I think the choice I would make would be empathy. I’ve always been curious about empathy and having a career in chronic pain management as well as working overseas in earthquake relief or refugee camps, I’ve tried to develop this gift … but always came up lacking. True empathy is elusive.
Why not choose love? That’s a good question, but I see what empathy is to love is what wheels are to a car. Is there love without empathy? Can love be private and silent? I’m not so sure. But I do think that true empathy erases things like racism, hatred, political bickering, even those items taken to the grand scale of war. It is because, if you can truly see the world as others do, feel their pain, their history, and understand them, it is hard to hate them or war with them.
I remember a movie, but the title escapes me, where the main character is suddenly transported into the life of random strangers that he bumps into on the street. He sees the world from their eyes and he knows and feels all their personal history. That is empathy portrayed in very real terms.
The historical Jesus (not so much the religious version) was a champion of empathy … as exemplified by his encounter with the woman at the well. I raise the question that while Jesus did supernatural miracles, that encounter may have been within the realms of what we could all achieve, if we had empathy. It is the ability to read another person, including their emotional damage and perspectives on life.
I became interested again in the topic of empathy right after I was diagnosed with cancer, especially as it related to the practice of medicine. It was from my personal experience as a patient, of meeting nurses and providers, some with a remarkable amount of empathy … some with none … zip. I even began toying with the idea of writing either an article for a journal or a book about it. I started to do research and learned some amazing things. According to patient surveys, the thing they most dislike about their medical providers is the lack of empathy. In America at least, empathy is not part of the normal curriculum of medical or nursing school (and I can vouch that it is not part of PA school). Also, our system of medicine is not conducive to empathy as the way that insurance companies reimburse for appointments with providers is the less time they spend with each patient, the more they earn. The providers perceive that empathy takes too much time.
I read the studies by a psychiatrist at John Hopkins Medical School, who developed a program for teaching empathy. She found, and claims, that increasing one’s empathy does not take more time, just a change in style. One key feature is actually listening to what the patient is saying, meditating on that information, and giving an appropriate response. It is more typical, according to her, that the provider thinks they know what the patient is saying and in their minds they are formulating an answer before the person even finishes asking the question. There is actually a verse, Proverbs 18:13 that says that, “for he who gives an answer before listening to the question, it is a folly and a shame.”
So, I conclude that the greatest gift may be empathy. I certainly don’t have it and cringe when I think of all the times I’ve blown it. I hate when I, retrospectively, reflect on a conversation I had with someone hours later, and realize, at the time, I was not absorbing what they were saying and responded in a trifling way.