This piece is another reflection from Kathy Akiyama's course Ministry in a Multicultural Church. It was submitted Joshua Keeney, a third-year college student from the Diocese of Sacramento.
Empathy - by Joshua Keeney
When reflecting upon the first chapter of Empathy in the Global World by Carolyn Calloway-Thomas, a strict definition of empathy seemed elusive in the beginning and difficult to grasp once discovered. I attempted to identify the significant aspects that affect its definition and how it applied to my life in specific circumstances. This venture led to an increased focus on the area of cultural empathy and more precisely toward its second critical point of "imaginative placement." It emphasizes that "one must be able to 'see' through the eyes of others, creating both a subject and an object-oriented focus that can shift, depending on whether the lens . . . is reflecting one as a subject or object" (Calloway-Thomas 13). That is to say, we must be able to go outside of our "self" and step into the other's vantage point while leaving our own view behind.
Another vital piece, which will relate well to my specific experience, is the "reciprocal relationship between two interacting individuals, even if one is not physically present" (Calloway-Thomas 13). This describes the idea that one person can have an effect on another even though one person is not in the sensate vicinity of the other. Placing myself in another's "shoes" and making hasty judgments have always been difficult, but this will be upon what the proceeding paragraphs concentrate.
My personal experience occurred when I went home for Christmas break in December. A couple of friends and I met up for dinner and subsequently went out that night to a few of their friends' social gatherings. Our dinner was filled with laughter and pious conversation and appeared as if it was setting the tone for the night. My friends are steadfastly Catholic so I did not question my decision in going out with them no matter how little I knew the people we would be visiting.
The first two gatherings were satisfactory, one at an apartment, the other at a restaurant, yet the third, at someone's house, really left me unsettled and caused me to voice my frustration to my friends after we had left. The theme of alcohol, not bad in itself, was prevalent at the two private gatherings, in the apartment and at the house, and had irked me because some had drunk too much; however, the straw that broke the camel's back was the horrendously immoral music at the latter location. These settings were not conducive to a comfortable environment for me and countered the outlook I dreamt up for the night. The hosts themselves were staunchly Catholic and from my perspective failed to portray that image at both places. I was unhappy at what I felt was a lack of zeal for the Lord and a line of moral misjudgments.
The cultures of the seminary and the secular world can contain vast differences, especially because of the diverse environmental influences acting on each. I still harbored the seminary lifestyle, its influences inside of me, and thought the others should know and maintain the same even though I departed the hill for break. I had placed my idealistic goggles on for the night and wanted to perceive nothing converse of perfection and piety. I was unable to see that what these people were doing was not necessarily wrong or evil, just not what I would have done, for example drinking and listening to mainstream music.
Although I did not know exactly who the owner of the house was and, therefore, he was not physically present to me, I juxtaposed all that I saw onto him and claimed he accepted and approved all of the behavior I saw even though in reality this may have been to the contrary. I was unable to enter his vantage point and be uncritical of those around me, as a familiar friend would conceivably do. My dinner conversation set me up to conceive of these people as saints because my friends had edified me with such a holy demeanor, instead of sinners striving for sainthood.
Luke presents an eerily similar situation as I found myself in that night. As we read in the Sacred Scriptures multiple times, Jesus declares, "I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance" (Luke 5:32). This text displays the love which Jesus possesses for all people, even those he felt were acting contrary to the law. He does not turn His back and forsake them but holds out hope and conceptualizes the immense need they have for a complete call to repentance. He humbles himself to be merry with them without Himself falling into the snares of their ways.
As a result, I should not have reacted in such a way to those whom I perceived as weak and should have resisted the desire to hold them in contempt as sinners worse than me. If I claimed any position at all, it should have been the position of a charitable witness to them despite their behavior.
In addition, knowing my own sinfulness should have permitted me a clearer view of how to transpose their vision into mine. I should not have murmured at the owner of the house asking, "Why do you eat and drink . . . with sinners" (Luke 5:30) as the Pharisees and scribes did against Jesus. I should have humbly submitted my self-righteousness and listened to the Holy Spirit by softening my heart and granting mercy.
Holy Bible. Revised Standard Version. Catholic Edition. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006.
Thomas-Calloway, Carolyn. Empathy in the Global World. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2009.