About eight years ago, during a period when I counseled several adult survivors of priest sexual abuse, I also served on a board for our diocesan Office of Child and Youth Protection. We almost became an underground group because our bishop at the time was uninterested in dealing with issues that exposed church faults. A therapist in our group summarized it well for me, saying: “He does not possess the capacity to empathize with those who have been harmed by the church.” These words have remained with me since, summarizing well many struggles that we, as individuals and groups, hold onto in our society.
For example, many of us lack the capacity to empathize with undocumented foreigners living among us. Multitudes of whites lack capacity to comprehend the steep challenges that some black Americans face, while numerous blacks cannot grasp how some white Americans are unsettled by the Black Lives Matter movement. Similarly, a massive number of democrats lack aptitude and interest to understand what’s at the heart of discontent among millions of hard-working citizens who found a voice in the MAGA movement, and some republicans cannot sympathize with liberal measures as long as media, celebrities, and higher education dominate and define them. I know plenty of pious Catholics who simply cannot accept casual approaches to prayer in sanctuaries, and many other Catholics who eagerly encounter God in nature but cannot understand why church leaders restrict weddings and other religious ceremonies to designated sacred places while discounting other godly spaces. Though it is difficult to feel what others feel—having not seen, heard, or experienced what they have—it is important that we seek empathy.
In addition to IQ (intelligence quotient), some leaders and managers look for high EQs (emotional intelligence quotient) from team members or associates. An EQ assesses individuals’ sense of self, personal awareness, grasp of feelings—theirs and others, scope of interrelations, impact of verbal and nonverbal communications, etc. In other words, if a person has a high EQ, she is in touch with her emotions and tuned in to those around her or he can master situations to produce a greater good for all involved. We would do well in our country and in our religion, I think, to spend time in 2021 working on our collective EQ. We could progress in tremendous ways if we possessed the capacity to empathize with those who are dissimilar from us, racially, politically, theologically, ecclesiologically, ideologically, culturally, or who simply think and feel differently because of disparate natures or incompatible nurturing.
Former General Secretary to the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjold, once said: “We have too much in common, too much that we might lose together.” Let us make a commitment in 2021 to do that which is within our capacity to empathize with those who see the world in ways that we do not.