There’s a paradox inherent in the idea of “true religion”: as certitude increases, empathy tends to decrease.
That’s probably a platitude, but I think it’s one worth bringing up as we go into an election season full of high-decibel cultural clashes between political parties, geographies, religions, and within the LDS community itself. Even now, I browse Facebook and see friends who are so firm in their faith in Jesus Christ that they are completely incapable of civil conversation. Paradox!
We as a people struggle mightily (with sometimes tragicomical results) to understand those not of our faith, our family situation, our economic status, even our geography. And yet the gospel of Jesus Christ is built on the empathy of our Savior, who descended below everything and suffered all the pains of the human condition. He understands us; all of us. His empathy is infinite.
Wikipedia has a bunch of interesting definitions of empathy, but I’m using the word as D.M. Berger defines it: “The capacity to know emotionally what another is experiencing from within the frame of reference of that other person, the capacity to sample the feelings of another or to put one’s self in another’s shoes.”
It’s one of the drier definitions of empathy, but even this less emotional empathy holds the key to human interaction, peace, goodwill, and charity.
And a bunch of other things. I work in advertising, which despite its unseemliness is dependent on empathic insight. Before Don Draper can sell Lucky Strikes to housewives, he has to be able to get into their heads, to understand their desires and fears and insecurities. Success in advertising means knowing what the target audience wants and what problems they need solved; to know their motivations is to empathically understand them.
Incidentally, advertisers are, by and large, horrible at this kind of empathic analysis, which is why so much advertising talks down to the audience it’s trying to persuade. It’s nearly impossible for smug urban professionals to understand anyone other than themselves, especially when they expend so much energy being smug urban professionals. (An industry problem since the beginning, which prompted David Ogilvy to ironically chide “The consumer is not a moron, she is your wife.”)
Can we see any similarities to mission work and outreach? As a missionary, I was a smug, brash young man, armed with the true gospel and the mandate to convince unbelievers. Now I read my younger brother’s letters every week from his mission, and hear my younger self in them: “People just don’t get it!,” “Why won’t they do what they know is right?,” “How are they not seeing what’s right in front of them?,” etc.
What I misunderstood at the time is that a missionary’s job isn’t just to convince. It’s also a missionary’s job to connect. Much harder, right? It requires maturity, humility, and most of all empathy.
This need to connect is not merely (or even mostly) a missionary obligation—it is a Christian obligation. Do we try to understand others? Do we know their real needs? Can we get outside our own heads for a few moments to see what the world looks like from other points of view?
Perhaps we don’t feel the need to leave our perfect heads with our knowledge of the truth, but instead wait for others to see the world according to our superior understanding. But that’s the believer’s paradox: certitude can kill empathy.
I hope we don’t let it, even in this season of absolute, uncompromising political and religious certainty.
Like most of the BCC community, I have a very strong testimony that ours is the true church of Jesus Christ, and that we are led by Him. And I hope I can keep that testimony from getting in the way of Christian living.