Empathy is a combination of two Greek words, “em” and “pathos,” which together mean “in feeling.” Empathy is a person’s ability to recognize and share the emotions of another person, fictional character, or sentient being. It involves, first, seeing someone else’s situation from his or her perspective and, second, sharing emotions, including distress.

Some animals seem to feel empathy. Dogs often demonstrate it. Studies of a few other nonhuman mammals also reveal expressions of concern to the point of acting on it in uncomplicated ways.

But with people everything is complicated.

Human beings are mammals with big brains that can complicate life in extraordinary ways. Instinctual responses to outside stimuli are slow to develop, which makes our first few years of life slow and even challenging. While most mammalian creatures learn to walk, eat, and perform basic behaviors rapidly, human mammals need months to perform even basic functions like walking. Years to learn essential survival skills.

Fortunately, mature humans who have brought such helpless beings into the world are instinctively capable of meeting the challenge of nurturing their offspring. Most are also capable of caring for them responsibly over time. With empathy. Especially if their culture is supportive.

Cultural affiliation was once a relatively simple aspect of being human. To be members of a family that is also part of a larger tribe of other humans. The tribe depended on the inclinations and talents of people within the group to establish processes for appropriate social interactions. To break down the contributions each person should make to ensure the tribe’s survival.

That’s when the big brain came in handy. It allowed the consideration of options. Not depending on one kind of response to outside stimuli. Ideas could be considered and even debated, so tribes needed processes for doing that productively. Not all tribes did it the same. Many liked the idea of selecting a chief or ruler who, after deliberations concluded, would choose the belief systems or actions to be taken.

The human brain was more inquisitive than those in other mammals. Other mammals limited their wondering to issues such as where food and water could be acquired. They also thought about climate management and moving to warmer regions. Instinct guided them toward behaviors that would perpetuate the species. Seeking safety through herding. The human brain wondered about those subjects too.

But also why we were born, what we were expected to do with our lives, and where we go when life ends.

Questions that piqued the human’s big brain. Some ingenious members of the tribe worked on finding or creating credible answers. The results were forms of government and religion, linked to ways of educating the young.

All this history can sound like simple caveman history in the 21st Century. Maybe it is. But years ago I worked on a car with my father when he started talking about technology. How human ingenuity in the technological field far outstripped our ways to manage ways for interacting with each other.

And with the God who made us.

My father was born in 1904, near the beginning of the explosion of technological development. While excited about that human achievement, he shared the lament of the Wright Brothers, inventors of the first successful airplane. They believed their machines would benefit humankind and even avert war. Instead, they were instrumental in killing millions of people during the 20th Century.

My father talked about how conflicted he was about human gains in technology. Mostly because we were not putting guardrails on its use. Creating guardrails meant the ability to actually feel what might happen if such guardrails did not exist. The possibility of airplanes becoming killing machines. The automobile and electronic media enlarging society to a size and mobility that cultural values are diminished. Allowing population centers to expand at such a rate they no longer have a unifying effect on human cultures. Where levels of acquaintanceship and shared feelings do not matter. 

And those issues did not include problems we now face with social media and generative artificial intelligence. Social media was once thought to be a good medium for building and perpetuating human understanding. But it has instead become a massive money-making enterprise that addicts the young and vulnerable. Empathy has been overshadowed by manipulation. Often resulting in depression, loneliness, and even suicide.

Generative artificial intelligence is no longer science fiction in the guise of humanoid robots serving cocktails and performing daily functions people dislike. It has entered our lives as facsimiles of ourselves. It can look, act, perform, and interact like we do. And can even pretend to be empathetic if its survival depends on it.

Like HAL in the 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Resurrecting the Importance of Christian Empathy in this New Era

Jesus did not just sympathize with people.

Jesus was empathy personified. Deep down. To take on our grief and suffering within his own persona. So much so he did something about them through healing. Succinctly giving guidance via eye-opening parables and divinely inspired illustrations. So much so he took our human frailties and sins to the cross with him. He converted empathy into a saving grace. A state of being that absolves us of our sins and inability to show our fellow humans the kind of empathy that really overcomes their hurt. Their suffering.

While we are unable to be empathetic the way Jesus was, we can still offer ourselves to others in ways that resonate with the afflicted. To help them feel drawn into our sphere of emotion and communal sustenance, extending authentic friendship through a cheerful camaraderie. Nothing superficial. Nothing fake.

Empathy is a reaching out and a drawing in. It exudes the mutuality of our human existence with no strings attached. It places the afflicted on an equal playing field of human existence, revealing our own hidden afflictions and peccadilloes. Being a community of equals willing to expose our own weaknesses and share our own strengths.

The challenge we followers of Christ have is much greater than fending off the impact of ongoing technological development, social media, or even artificial intelligence. While those challenges are significant, our own behavior as complicated humans reflects something worse.

Many Americans now believe empathy is a sign of weakness. That our nation’s survival depends on strength. On taking firm moral positions based on surmised American values, thereby holding the line against perceived misbehaviors. No exceptions.

Nuances are just ways to take our eyes off the ball. Abortion is bad. Guns are good. Quality education is technology based and measurable indoctrination. Creativity is good only if its value can be measured statistically. Religion is valuable to the extent it promotes compliance with strict rules of order.

And empathy? A sentiment to be replaced with expectations and compliance. For the good of the nation. For the good of those who are proven worthy and productive members of society.

Those on the fringes of that envisioned brave new world must get out of the way because they are irrelevant. They do not belong. People like scholars, artists, writers, tinkerers, theologians, and others who will likely be replaced by generative artificial intelligence. Also irrelevant are those who struggle with ill health, depression, handicaps, old age, addictions, and financial reversals. Their needs can be managed as necessary. But nothing more.

Empathy is a mystery. It is hard to acquire and definitely not measurable in any quantitative sense. But without it our humanoid existence, big brains and all, becomes sterile and meaningless. Devoid of genuine love. Devoid of genuine meaning and hope. Just another species that is part of the evolutionary continuum on earth.

And that is sad.

©2023 Stu Ervay – All Rights Reserved

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