Experience may be the sharpest teacher. "One thorn of experience," the poet James Russell Lowell tells us, "is worth a whole wilderness of warning."
More often than not, unfortunately, learning through experience is learning the hard way the test comes first and the lesson follows. This explains our penchant for equating "experience" with our mistakes.
Empathy is the intellectual, emotional, and imaginative apprehension of another person's situation that takes place without experiencing it. It is learning through identification, through entering that special matrix where one encounters the unifying cohumanity of self and neighbor.
Moments of empathy often arrive unexpectedly and under the most unlikely circumstances. Some years ago I had finished a talk on abortion and was hurrying to get back to my car on a cold and rainy October evening. I was tired and anxious to get home. Someone was running after me calling out my name. He had a story to tell me, and neither the time, the weather, nor the setting was going to deter him from his mission. I stopped and listened to him unravel his tale, first with polite indulgence, and then with rapt interest.
He had been in Uganda doing peace work as an emissary of the Canadian government. The political situation under Idi Amin had reached a crisis point. My engaging confidante was advised to return to Canada at once.
He boarded a train that would take him out of the country and to freedom. It was his only route out of the jungle. He soon discovered that he was the only white passenger. A soldier came over to my friend, pointed a machine gun at his head, and contemptuously declared that he could blow him away and not a soul on the train would be at all concerned. For a half-hour the soldier taunted him, reiterating that at any second he might squeeze the trigger and throw his dead body into the jungle where no one would find it.
While the cat-and-mouse game continued, the other passengers seemed utterly indifferent to my friend's predicament. No one interceded on his behalf. He was an alien in an alien world. His misfortune, which he had no opportunity to avoid, was being in the wrong place at the wrong time and with the wrong people.
In his state of terror, my eager storyteller began to concentrate with excruciating clarity on the frailty of his life and on his state of utter helplessness. He waited without appeal for the unpredictable judgment of a stranger who wielded an instrument of death. The 30-minute ordeal, during which time seemed to stand still, finally ended. The soldier withdrew. For whatever reason, unlike Meursault in Camus' The Stranger, he chose not to pull the trigger. My friend was reborn. But in that torturous process of rebirth, something extraordinary happened. For a half-hour he had been completely at the mercy of another person's will. Whether he lived or died hinged solely on someone else's arbitrary choice. And he had survived his appalling ordeal in the damp, womb-like environment of a moving train. All the elements of his experience assisted him in establishing a deep and, what would prove to be, enduring identification with the plight of the unborn. That is why he became a lifelong member of the pro-life movement, why he could never be "pro-choice," and why he had to tell me his story.
A sadistic Ugandan soldier had led my friend into the pro-life movement by pointing a machine gun at his head. He had achieved something that countless pro-lifers have failed to achieve through more genteel and civilized attempts of persuasion. Sometimes a force other than conventional reason brings people to see what is at stake in the abortion issue. The heart of the movement is profound empathic identification with every human being those who wait in hope of being rescued while they sit in silence to be born.
In her autobiography, It Is I Who Have Chosen You, Judie Brown recounts her own story and offers advice about what can be accomplished through empathy. At a time when she was new to the art of debating, Judie sent a highly distinguished obstetrician/gynecologist scurrying out of the room simply by describing what happens to the unborn during an abortion. The truth that sets us free may first send us running for the exit! As fate (or providence) would later decree, Judie and her debating opponent were brought together again, though under a much more dramatic set of circumstances. That same pro-abortion doctor was summoned to use his skills in assisting in the difficult and life-threatening birth of Judie's third child.
Judie Brown later discovered that the same man she both opposed on the debate floor and welcomed in the delivery room no longer performed abortions. She likes to think that his acquired empathy for the unborn in general and little Christina Brown in particular were instrumental in his change of heart. Empathy has a way of transmitting itself from one person to another in a potentially unending fashion. Empathy is truly an "unending story."
are two forms of intelligence. One is of the mind, the other of the heart. In
the moral sphere there can be no doubt that the empathy of the heart is incomparably
more important than the photography of the mind. Through the mind we can know
and understand, but through the heart we can love, serve, and change the world.
Donald. "Empathy." Lay Witness.
Reprinted with permission of Lay Witness.
Lay Witness is the flagship publication of Catholics United for the Faith. Featuring articles written by leaders in the Catholic Church, each issue of Lay Witness keeps you informed on current events in the Church, the Holy Father's intentions for the month, and provides formation through biblical and catechetical articles with real-life applications for everyday Catholics.
Donald DeMarco is adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary and Professor Emeritus at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo Ontario. Donald DeMarco continues to work as a corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy for Life. DeMarco is the author of twenty books, including How to Remain Sane in a World That is Going Mad, Poetry That Enters the Mind and Warms the Heart, The Heart of Virtue, The Many Faces of Virtue, and Architects Of The Culture Of Death. Donald DeMarco is on the Advisory Board of The Catholic Education Resource Center.Copyright © 2003 LayWitness
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