“Empathy Nudging”

~ Luke 10:25-37 ~

Well, that’s pretty straightforward, isn’t it? Just go do it! Go, show compassion! Show compassion to those unfortunates lying on the side of the road. They are your neighbors, after all. Just do it! End of sermon – NOT!

Why do we find it difficult to just obey Jesus’ clear instructions to love our neighbors no matter their lot? Are we, maybe, waiting to be “moved with compassion” before we act? What actually motivates us followers of Jesus to show acts of kindness, to be compassionate people?

Well, evidently, just hearing Jesus’ admonition isn’t enough. Several years ago a professor of psychology at Princeton University and Princeton Seminary, asked his class of aspiring ministers to prepare a sermon on this Parable of the Good Samaritan. He then told them to go to another building across campus to deliver their sermon, but with a twist. He told some students that their sermon would not begin for a while, and that they could take their time. Others were told time was tight and had to get there right away. So, the students ambled or sprinted across Princeton’s grounds, and as they reached the building, they encountered a man slumped in a doorway. As the students neared him, he coughed and groaned. In fact, he was an actor, secretly recording how they responded. The results? Well, 60% of those wanna-be preachers who weren’t in a hurry stopped to help the man, but of those who were in a rush, only 10%. The irony is palpable: Students wouldn’t help a man lying on the sidewalk because they were in too much of a hurry to give a sermon about how important it is to help a man lying on the sidewalk. And don’t even ask about those 40% who weren’t in a hurry and still didn’t stop to help.

What motivates us to show compassion? This morning I want to explore how we might learn to be more compassionate. How do we learn compassion? Let me say right up front that I think the key word is ‘empathy’. When one is “moved with compassion” they are, in fact, emoting that powerful emotion called empathy. And, more significantly, we can become more empathetic. We can learn the skills and techniques of being empathetic people. Maybe, even, we could describe it as a spiritual discipline!

There has been lots of research on the subject of empathy. Many psychologists and neuroscientists study empathy, nonstop. But I will be referencing a recently published book that summarizes this research quite well – The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World, by Dr. Jamil Zaki, a professor of psychology at Stanford University and the director of the Stanford Social Neuroscience Lab. The whole premise of his book is that we can learn empathy. There are things that we can do, skills we can develop and practice that will nudge us to be more empathetic people. Hence, my sermon title: “Empathy Nudging.”

But first a definition. Just what is empathy? Misinterpretations abound. As Inigo Montoya, of The Princess Bride says, “You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.” And, as we will discuss next Sunday, often people who pushback on the positive benefits of empathy are using a flawed definition.

There is this famous adage: “Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes” (Often thought of as a Native American saying, so moccasins instead of shoes, but it’s actually from a poem written in 1895). Of course, the cynical response: “then when you do judge him, you’re a mile away and you have his shoes.”

Professor Zaki, I believe, offers a good workable definition. First, empathy is not really just one thing. It is, he says, “an umbrella term that describes multiple ways people respond to one another, including sharing, thinking about, and caring about other’s feelings.” By “sharing” he means what could be called “experience sharing.” Let’s say a friend is visibly distraught over a situation. You might very well also respond instinctually, actually feeling the same pain. This is the most famous understanding of empathy. But you don’t just feel your friend’s emotion, you might also think about it. Like a detective, you put together pieces of information to help fill out the picture of what your friend is experiencing. You consider what you might do to help. This is called “mentalizing,” explicitly considering another person’s perspective. Finally, there is caring. This is called “empathic concern,” a motivation to improve your friend’s well-being. This is the piece of empathy that sparks kind action.

As we can see, empathy is not just about feeling the other person’s feelings. It also includes thinking about and acting on those feelings. As we consider Jesus’ Samaritan, when Jesus says he was “moved with compassion” he did not just feel the man’s condition, he also thought about his plight and acted on it. That’s the point of the whole story.

One of the great novels of Western literature is Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, that sprawling epic tome about law and grace, good and evil, condemnation and redemption. A central plot point of the novel is the question: can human nature change? Police inspector Javert relentlessly pursues former criminal Jean Valjean. And no matter how much Valjean demonstrates that he is a changed man, no matter how much good he does, no matter how redeemed he appears, in Javert’s eyes, he is still a criminal, because “once a thief, always a thief.”

Neurological researchers call this type of thinking “fixist.” Humans are born with certain traits, certain characterological traits, goes the thinking, and those traits never change. People are born with particular demeanors and they don’t change. People are born with particular IQ’s and that doesn’t change. No sense trying to change them; that’s just who they are. So, for Javert, “once a thief, always a thief.”

This kind of thinking has been around for a long time. But in the last 30+ years those neurological researchers and psychologists have come to realize that a “fixist” view of humankind is just wrong. They have found, for instance, that IQ is not fixed. While it is true that people are born with particular IQ’s they are not a given set point, but more like a range. And people’s IQ’s can improve to some degree within a range. They call this type of thinking, “mobilist.”

For a long time the emotion called empathy was thought to be fixed. Some people are born with an innate propensity for empathy; others are not. Some people are takers; some people are givers. And while it is certainly true that there is a genetic component to how empathic a person may or may not be, these researchers are finding that everyone has the capacity to become more empathic. We can learn empathy.

You could say that everyone is born with a range of empathic capabilities. True, those on the low end of the scale might not ever become a full-blown empath, but they can move up the scale if they but give it a try. Likewise, those high on the scale of empathy, could, under certain unfortunate circumstances, move down the scale of empathy. In other words, we aren’t “fixed” emotionally. All of us are “mobilists” when it comes to empathy. We can earn empathy.

So, the question is: How do we do that? How do we become more empathic people? Well, one way is by thinking. Our emotions aren’t separate from our reasoning abilities. They are intertwined. Therefore, by thinking about our emotions we can change them. As Hamlet was heard to say, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” By thinking differently, we can choose to feel differently. Sometimes just a suggestion can make a difference. Someone who wants to feel less sad as they watch a loved one on their deathbed, might be encouraged to remember all the ways they loved each other.

Dr. Zaki calls this “psychological tuning.” We all fine tune our emotional states all the time by thinking. We may choose to bear down on the math problem at hand rather than give into feeling tired. We may choose to alter our fired-up emotions in the heat of an argument in order to calm down the situation. Whether we realize it or not, we’re constantly weighing the costs and benefits of sadness, or joy, or anxiety, and choosing the feelings that serve our purpose. This goes counter to the notion that we aren’t in control of our emotions. “I can’t help but feel this way,” is more a copout than a real thing. Yes, emotions can be strong but they aren’t “fixed.” We can adapt; we can be mobile with our emotions.

Empathy is no different. Yes, it can happen automatically. We might not be able to predict or plan when we will be “moved with compassion.” But more often we choose empathy because we find it useful. Empathy can feel good and positive emotions are contagious. And empathy feeds our deep-seated desire for human connectedness. And even in those situations when empathy doesn’t feel good, we know it makes us look good.

However, there are times when empathy isn’t our choice. When others are in pain, connecting with them risks our own psychological well-being. When time or money is at stake, empathy might seem like a burden. The seminary student preaching experiment I spoke of earlier is a good example. Frankly, often when walking down the streets of San Francisco I turn off my empathy meter.

You could say that inside each of us is a continual psychological tug-of-war. Some parts of us are prone to act out of empathy; other parts are resistant. Whichever parts we feed will probably win the tug-of-war. There are ways to feed the empathy-inducing parts of us to move us to act. Psychologists call this “nudging.” If we so choose, we can engage with ways of thinking that nudge us towards empathy.

We might be called upon to hear other people’s stories, stories of difficult times, hard decisions, or painful moments. One could hear such stories and not necessarily be moved. But if encouraged to actively listen we just might. If we imagine what that person felt about what happened to them and how it impacted their life, we are more likely to be moved toward empathy. Sometimes we can’t help but be emotionally moved with another person’s plight, especially if that person is close to us. Other times we have to be intentional with engaged listening, imaging the other person’s feeling. Indeed, as we engage thusly with a person’s story we very likely will expand our thoughts and feelings wider; to consider the plight of whole groups of people who might be affected similarly. Hearing one asylum-seeker’s story might just move us to “hear,” empathically, the stories of the many. And in so doing, act in helpful ways.

Going back to my original definition, empathy is more than just feeling the other person’s feelings. True, that is a significant aspect of empathy. But if that were all it was we would most likely only care about “our” people. “Tribal empathy,” caring only for my people, is a very truncated idea of empathy and can be quite dangerous. You could say that much of the current political appeal made by the president feeds on a tribalist mentality. More about that next week.

Feeling the other person’s feeling is just one small part of empathy. We also need to think about, think intentionally, about what those feelings mean and how they expand our empathy towards those whom we don’t know. And, thirdly, we turn those thoughts and feelings into active caring. Empathy includes all three: feeling, thinking and caring. That’s what the Good Samaritan did. May we, too, find ways to grow into this spiritual dimension of what it means to love our neighbor. And, know this: Jesus would be pleased. Amen.


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