I was listening to the radio the other day and I heard the English singer songwriter Billy Bragg talking about how empathy was an important in the creation of songs – he suggested that even if the song was in a different language it was still possible to be moved by the performance. He then said something that set me thinking; he suggested that in these days there was what he called “a war on empathy”. As a bit of a word nerd I looked at various definitions of the word and the omniscient Wikipedia I came across this; “Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is feeling from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position”, or to put in another way you must walk a mile in someone else’s shoes to understand their position. The word ‘compassion’ is closely associated with this word – the ability to ‘suffer with’ another person and to be alongside them in whatever they were experiencing. As a working minister this was often the best that I could offer the people I came across in whatever situation they faced – it seemed to me that what most of these people wanted were not answers but some sense that someone else was alongside them.
But a ‘war on empathy’? It seems to me that we are living through a particularly cruel time – violence of varying kinds comes and goes whether it be through jealousy, crime or state sponsored activity. But what stands out is a marked lack of compassion – we have a species of ‘leader’ these days who seem to pride themselves in a lack of compassion for the weakest and the marginalised in our midst – and often populations seem to become complicit in this. It can be argued that this has always been the case we just know more about it these days but it seems to me that it is worse at present because our knowledge is greater as is the simultaneous realisation of our inability to address it or to call it out – the bully pulpit always shouts the loudest and those who stand up seem to be paying a higher price today than ever!
In this (still) United Kingdom we are living through a particularly difficult time, but whatever happens in our relationship with the European Union after October 31st this year, it will have little effect on our political class – they will ride it out (and possibly grow richer because of it!) – but those at the bottom of our society will feel the harsh effects of what I believe is the fruit of untruths and manipulation on a massive scale. So I would argue that we need a return to empathy and compassion – the ability to feel alongside others and to act on the strength of that feeling. It may not be fiscally prudent or politically expedient but it will be human – and the human project is more than just figures on paper or facts in a government project.
I write from a Christian perspective, aware of the lack of compassion often shown by Christians, but also aware of the way that, on this subject, my faith is in accord with all the other world faiths, after all the Golden Rule is not golden for nothing! I am also aware of something that G.K. Chesterton wrote; “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried”. I am also aware of Jesus of Nazareth and the more I read the gospels the more subversive a figure I find him – he lived and spoke into a cruel and largely unforgiving imperial environment and as the gospels remind us “the common people heard him gladly”. His passion for God’s just and gentle rule took him to the cross and beyond and he left a compassionate template for all those who claim to follow him. This can be dismissed as a ‘social gospel’ but it has, on balance, changed human experience for the better. And to the voices of Jesus and Gilbert Keith I want to add Todd Rundgren and his song ‘Compassion’, the closing lyric goes like this;
“Open up your heart
So you can start to feel compassion
Get down on your knees
Pray to heaven for compassion
Everybody needs compassion
If you want to be healed
Then you know you got to feel compassion”.
(G.K. Chesterton’s remark comes from a collection of his essays called ‘What’s Wrong With the World?’ published in 1910. Todd R’s song appears on his album ‘Healing’ from 1981).