Empathy and intersubjectivity

By: Fr. Roy Cimagala

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 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 at 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 to 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 thought on how to grow in empathy and intersubjectivity.

Email: roycimagala@gmail.com