Empathy, or “A tissue for your issue” (Part 1)

St. John of the Cross gives us the distinctive note of this method (meditation): “The end of meditation and mental consideration of diving things is,” he says, “to obtain some knowledge and love of God. … When we love a person, we come to know him intuitively, and thus, better and more easily than those who might study him more minutely, but without love.Divine Intimacy, by Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen. [Baronius Press, 2010] Page 433. (emphasis mine)


One of my favorite people is a woman I worked with a decade ago as a fellow project manager. One day while we were talking about various items surrounding our projects she told me about her lack of and inability to feel empathy. She wasn’t talking about empathy when it came to human beings or emotions, but as it applied to project deadlines. If someone assigned a task told her that said task would be completed by such and such a date, she took their word on it as a professional. If the deadline passed and she instead received various excuses for their not getting something done? That’s when her empathy meter went to zero. “I want to tell them ‘Here’s a tissue for your issue’,” she once told me with a laugh. This was only ten or eleven years ago but it was the first time I’d really had the word “empathy” put into context for me. As I continued to mull over the word and its meaning I realized that while she self-admittedly lacked empathy in certain areas I possessed bucketloads of this trait.

tissue for your issue_someecards

Looking back on my life I was able to trace my first cognizance of this to junior high. I can recall one morning over breakfast reading a story in the Omaha World-Herald (this was my morning routine from grades 7-12: a bowl of sugar bombs and the daily OWH) and noticed drops of water falling upon the newsprint. I was startled to discover they were falling from my own eyes. I don’t recall the particulars of the story, but I’ve never forgotten the experience. I was never a weepy child nor am I as an adult. But I admit to being moved to tears often enough that I will now take extended breaks from the news of the world.

I’ve found that this will occur because I tend towards inserting myself into the story that I’m reading or hearing about. I don’t know if this is unique to people who do a lot of reading, as I do, and are thus accustomed to losing themselves in a story by identifying with its characters. But nevertheless I did and still often do put myself in the story. I become the grieving parent. I see the terrible crime being perpetrated against an abused child. To the extent I am able to I feel what they feel. I am witness. An experience like this, shared with someone I’ve never met, can stay with me for days. It can haunt me, and so I try to control what I read or absorb.

“The Problem of Empathy”

Edith and her older sister Else.

Edith and her older sister Else.

In recent years I’ve had a growing interest in the life of Edith Stein. Stein was born in Breslau on October 21, 1891, the youngest of 11 Jewish children during Yom Kippur, the Feast of Atonement. It was obvious she was gifted intellectually from an early age and in 1911 entered the University of Breslau to study German and history, but her real interest was in philosophy and in women’s issues. She wrote “I was a radical suffragette. Then I lost interest in the whole issue. Now I am looking for purely pragmatic solutions.” This statement has always struck me as meaning she grew weary of the endless talking and bickering and wanted to get something done. In 1913 she transferred to Göttingen University to study under the esteemed Edmund Husserl, known for his development and study of phenomenology. Edith graduated in 1915. She took a nursing course and served in an Austrian field hospital during the First World War. It was a difficult time for her, looking after the sick in the typhus ward, and seeing young people die. During this time she wrote “I realize now that my life is no longer my own.” When the hospital was dissolved in 1916 she followed Husserl to Freiburg in Germany where she passed her doctorate summa cum laude in 1917, after writing a thesis on “The Problem of Empathy.”

In her thesis Stein confronted a questions that we could paraphrase as follows: Are we prisoners in private little cells, unable to communicate with one another, or can we truly know the experience of other people, can we truly know how they feel directly, can we realize spiritual solidarity with others?

As Jeff McLeod writes:

The dominant mode of thought in the 20th century would answer that question with a measured “no.” The influential philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that one could never truly know things or persons in themselves. At best one could know one’s inner experience of the phenomena, the colors, sounds, touch, but never the thing itself. This style of reasoning is still very influential. It implies that we are indeed prisoners who can’t ever know for certain that there are souls behind the masks we see in the form of human faces.


[Stein] argued that our knowledge of someone else’s pain is direct knowledge; it does not come from rational argumentation or inference, for this could not be trustworthy knowledge. We know they have a mind like ours because we know that we think, feel, decide, suffer, rejoice, etc. We recognize that the other person has such experiences as well because our ego is in some sense interchangeable with theirs.

She explained it this way: the object of our awareness at first is awareness of a “foreign” consciousness that “appears” to be in pain. But if we allow the experience to unfold in its fullness, we find ourselves cognitively taking the place of the other person, in a sense “remembering” or “recognizing” their pain as if it were a memory in our own personal experience. We can achieve intimate knowledge of others.

What I haven’t mentioned is that during her teen years Stein had left her Jewish faith behind and become an atheist. At this time she likely had none to very little exposure to Catholicism or Catholic philosophy/theology. As McLeod points out in his article “This is a very sound philosophy. Pope John Paul the Great treasured Stein’s philosophical contributions. Recognizing the reality of a person as opposed to a mere human organism is as fundamental as recognizing the reality of being.”

You can continue reading about Stein’s life here.

Empathy. Recognizing the humanity in others. Recognizing the pain in others as if it were a memory in our own personal experience. Loving a person with our hearts so that we come to know him or her intuitively, and thus, better and more easily.

Tomorrow in Part 2 I’ll continue with a discussion of empathy and the lack of it on the internet.


One thought on “Empathy, or “A tissue for your issue” (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Am I Being Loving Enough? | Loving Abundance

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