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Empathy and intersubjectivity

November 07, 2019 - Thursday 4:11 AM by Fr. Roy Cimagala

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          If we truly want to be genuine friends and brothers and
sisters to everybody else, we need to practice empathy first.
Hopefully that gesture will elicit a corresponding similar response of
the others toward us, and so we can enter into the world of
intersubjectivity which is what loving is all about.
          While empathy is a one-way affair, intersubjectivity is
already a two-way, mutual affair. Things start with oneself giving
himself to the others, and what he gives is also given back to him. As
St. John of the Cross would put it, “Where there is no love, put love
and you will harvest love.” It’s a principle that works most of the
time.
          Empathy glues us together as a people, enabling us to enter
into one another´s lives as we are supposed to do, building up our
sense of unity and solidarity despite the variety of our conditions
and situations. And so anything that undermines it undermines us as a
people, as a society, as a family.
          Lack of it leads to conflicts and acrimony, poisoning and
weakening our social fabric. We need to be more aware of building up
this important aspect of our lives, knowing its true nature and
character, its authentic source of energy and its real goal. At this
time, we cannot afford to be naïve about our need for empathy,
properly understood.
          Our initial problem is that many of us understand empathy
more as an instinctive and emotional reaction only, and nothing much
else. When you see someone stumble and in pain, you immediately mirror
his condition by vicariously feeling the fellow´s predicament
yourself.
          The emotions, of course, play an important role in
developing empathy. We cannot identify ourselves with the others
through pure ideas alone, and doctrine, and all that. We have to use
the emotions also, as in giving a lot of understanding, affection,
compassion, loyalty, etc. Our interest in the spiritual and
supernatural should not sacrifice or compromise naturalness where the
emotions play an important role.
          But neither should empathy be just an instinctive and
automatic reaction; it has to be a deliberately cultivated trait. It
should not just remain in the emotional level; it also has to be
properly directed and driven by our conscious reason, and then by our
faith and charity.
          It´s this wholistic grasp of empathy that would truly help
us build the society that we deserve as persons and as children of
God. We need to do everything to attain that understanding and the
skill to live it.
          Thus, we have to study it not only in the physical,
biological and social sciences. It has to be studied also under the
light of our faith and religion. Actually, the latter source of
knowledge gives empathy its deepest moorings. It defines empathy´s
ultimate dimensions. The natural sciences only give us the tools and
techniques to develop empathy.
          The Christian faith, for example, links empathy to the whole
range of Christian charity that includes not only loving those who
love us but also those who don´t. It´s this faith where empathy breaks
free from its usual confinement in the emotion level to enter into the
world of the supernatural to which we are called due to our spiritual
nature also.
          It’s when we master the art of empathy that we can aspire to
create the proper condition for intersubjectivity to take place. This
is the ideal condition for all of us. But like any ideal, it is
something to be worked out with great effort. It may appear to be
utopian at first, but we have to convince ourselves that it can be
achieved. We just have to keep on trying.
          We have to be wary of our tendency to take things for
granted, or to be so swallowed up completely by the usual flow of
things we do that we do fail to give some thoughts on how to grow in
empathy and intersubjectivity.

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