This piece on empathy comes from our friend (the inimitable) Michael Bender:

pap-jpgGrace in the face of alcoholism is not a new theme on Mbird, but I thought I might add to the literature with a brief anecdote from Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. At the beginning of the novel, Huckleberry spends some time describing his father, and Pap’s tendencies towards whiskey and debauchery. Huckleberry describes his father’s typical life cycle:

Pap took [some money] and got drunk and went a-blowing around and cussing and whooping and carrying on; and he kept it up all over town, with a tin pan, till most midnight; then they jailed him, and the next day they had him before the court, and jailed him again for a week.

After this particular rendition of the cycle, though, Pap received some grace at the hands of the judge that jailed him, and experienced a moment of deliverance, as empathy (albeit very briefly) prevailed despite moralism. Huck writes of the affair:

When [Pap] got out, the new judge said he was going to make a man of him. So he took him to his own house, and dressed him up clean and nice, and had him to breakfast and dinner and supper with the family, and was just old pie to him so to speak. And after supper, he talked to him about temperance and such things till the old man cried, and said he’d been a fool, and fooled away his life; but now he was agoing to turn over a new leaf and be a man nobody wouldn’t be ashamed of, and he hoped the judge would help him and not look down on him. The judge said he could hug him for them words; so he cried, and his wife she cried again; pap said he’d been a man who had always been misunderstood before, and the judge said he believed it. The old man said that what a man wanted that was down, was sympathy; and the judge said it was so.

Fast-forward 130 years. More scientific verbiage has been applied to this phenomenon, that all a person wants when s/he is down is sympathy. Daniel Goleman, a psychologist and author, was recently featured on the Colbert Report, discussing the ‘empathy gap’ which exists between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the impotent (I’ll treat ‘empathy’ and ‘sympathy’ as more or less synonymous here. Technically, the first is prerequisite to the second). As Goleman describes on the Colbert Report, and also in an October New York Times editorial: “A growing body of recent research shows that people with the most social power pay scant attention to those with little such power.”

While recognizing the problems created by this gap, including the potential for political exploitation of the least powerful by the most powerful, Goleman discusses the solution. Goleman says in his interview with Colbert, “The way to heal a gap between any two people who don’t understand each other is contact.” Goleman cites examples such as Bill Gates meeting the poor and downtrodden in developing countries, who thus became better-equipped than he would have been to empathize with their strife, and aid them more effectively. Goleman also describes Pope Francis’s calls to help the poor as an example of “empathic concern”; in these instances, someone has such a keen understanding of the needs of others that he or she strives to assist the people who they are relatively more powerful than. Through contact with Pap, the judge found empathy towards him. The judge made Pap’s needs, food, clothing, shelter, and fellowship, his own concern. The judge was displaying what Goleman calls “empathic concern”. And contact as a bridging of socioeconomic gaps mirrors contact with those of lesser social status, lesser ‘respectability’, or less spiritual status.


Obviously, as Christians, we have seen this empathic concern play out before, spanning a chasm far wider than between social power and social weakness, drunkenness and sobriety, or even wealth and poverty. Jesus is the ultimate example of contact healing a gap between two groups – “sinners and tax collectors” being the constant nitpicky refrain of the spiritual elite. In the face of God, ‘sinners and tax collectors’ describes us all: the most powerful being in the universe became human so that fallen humanity could see that we have an advocate who does not look down on us or cast judgment, but rather shared in our struggles and exhibited an empathic concern on a scale so massive that it cost the Incarnate Son his life.

There is power in a human connection. After being granted sympathy from the judge, Pap holds out his hand and says, “Look at it gentlemen, ladies, and all; take ahold of it; shake it. There’s the hand that was the hand of a hog; but it ain’t so no more; it’s the hand of a man that’s started in on a new life.” The judge took Pap’s hand, declaring him to be a fellow human, and not the town drunk. Pope Francis cradles the sick, declaring them more than diseased. Jesus touched the unclean, became Sin for us, and died on the cross, declaring, “my love is so great for you, that you, in your filth, brokenness, and defeat will be called, children of God.”