Empathy – Foundation Virtue in Spirituality and Parenting


I recently read a parenting article on nurturing virtues such as kindness, honesty and generosity within kids. The author identified the core virtue – the virtue from which all others spring – as empathy. Our ability to understand how others feel, what hurts or aids them, is the foundation for all of our virtuous actions towards others.

As someone interested in both spirituality and parenting, I find this interesting to contemplate, because empathy is also the root virtue identified in most religious and spiritual traditions. The Golden Rule, ‘treat others as you would like to be treated’, is specified in some form in every tradition I can think of.

So what is empathy exactly? Thinking about what it really means to develop it in children provides a lot of clues. There’s a difference between telling your two-year old not to bite because he will get a time-out vs. helping him understand it hurts the other person. There’s a difference between telling your five-year old not to call someone names because it “isn’t ‘nice” vs. showing her how it makes the other person sad. And there’s a difference between teaching your tween not to tease someone because “it’s wrong” vs. because it might cause the victim real pain.

Developing empathy requires getting beyond punishment, social mores, or even ideas about right and wrong. It requires that we take the time to ask questions like ‘what do you feel like when someone bites/calls you names/teases you?’ The essence of empathy is our ability to feel or understand someone else’s pain as if it is our own.

I often think of this when a story comes out about a bunch of tweens or teens bullying a peer (often online) to the point of suicide, or near-suicide. Parents of the abusers are often shocked, saying the usual ‘He/she is such a good kid, a straight A student, volunteers at church’ etc. And that probably all is true. But it is in the nature of teenagers to rebel and test limits, so if their ‘good’ behavior is entirely based on fear of punishment, or wanting to please adults, or a sense of social rectitude, they are destined to want to break and defy those expectations at some point. And they are also naturally self-absorbed, engrossed in one of the most intense life transitions there is. So unless they have a strong foundation of truly considering others’ feelings, too often empathy won’t naturally arise.

The same is true for us adults, and is perfectly illustrated by the difference between what I would call ‘moral kindness’ and true compassion. Most religions, in their form of the Golden Rule, tie adherence to some form of retribution, whether it is damnation, bad karma, or eternal delusion. Or, they hold out visions of what it means to be the ‘perfect spiritual human’ – the saint, the pious, the enlightened. So if we are religiously or spiritually inclined, we try and toe the moral line, whether out of fear or guilt. Either way, we aren’t necessarily feeling any true empathy.

Developing true empathy requires a combination of self-awareness and attentiveness to others. We have to truly be present enough in our encounters to sense what another is feeling, and aware enough of our own internal workings to let go of any attachments we have to judgments or outcome. Then we will feel a natural and real connection to others, and this is what empathy really is. Connectivity is the reason so many spiritual traditions incorporate practices designed to inspire compassion and empathy. Saying ‘we are all connected’ is philosophical, but actually feeling our oneness, experiencing it, is the essence of personal spirituality and mysticism.

So whether it is in our children or in ourselves, there is great value in looking at what truly motivates kind behavior. Empathy isn’t about making excuses for others, saying ‘they can’t help it’ when they wrong us. But it is about sensing what they feel, attempting to understand it, and feeling a connection without condemnation or martyrdom. Empathy is perhaps the greatest spiritual gift we can give ourselves, our children, and the world.

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