FEELING IT LIKE YOU DO
Some may more naturally discern the feelings of others but we are not excused this duty of care because we find it difficult.
Mel Gibson and Lindsay Lohan are toxic property in Hollywood today - linked as they are, variously, to antisemitism, misogyny, drug abuse and shoplifting - yet in two of their funnier films they show us what empathy really means. In Freaky Friday, a mother and daughter magically inhabit the body of the other while in What Women Want Mel Gibson is given the gift of hearing the inner voices of the women he meets. Both films give people the opportunity to get under the skin of those they don’t understand.
The teenage daughter perceives the strain of an overworked professional lone parent and her mother the dilemmas posed by relationships in the modern high school. Initially, Gibson finds he has a competitive advantage at work and in relationships, able to stay one step ahead of the game. Eventually his gift becomes a curse because the voices become like tinnitus in his ears, though not before he learns to become a nurturer by hearing what he sounds like to others and in eavesdropping on their deepest vulnerabilities.
These plot lines may labour a cliché, but they demonstrate where human relationships fail: in the lack of empathy we offer one another. We are often so preoccupied with our own status and the perceived wrongs done to us by others that we fail to think about our impact on them.
One of the reasons we are harder on others than on ourselves is that we judge them by their actions and ourselves by our intentions. People may mean better than they seem to, but without a spirit of enquiry and generosity on our part, we lose touch. This ingrained human failing is magnified by digital communication, which is stripped of the vital clues to emotion and intention which reading a human face helps to supply.
We should resist the suggestion that we either have the gift of empathy or we don’t, as some experts in neuroscience assert. Today’s siren call to love only ourselves already produces a world of clashing egos. Choosing to stand in someone else’s shoes is part of what it means to die to self in Christian discipleship. Some may more naturally intuit the feelings of others but we are not excused this duty of care because we find it difficult. Authentic Christian witness is formed in the subtle accretion of listening to others and showing kindness by what we have learned.
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