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Parshat Behar: Empathy – How To, How Not To

 Empathy is an essential trait in life and in Jewish tradition. The Torah states, You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. This idea is mentioned no less than 36 times throughout the Torah. 

But, like many things, there is a right way to go about it and a wrong way. Effective empathy is meaningful and can make a difference in someone’s life. Ineffective empathy can not only be annoying but even hurtful and insensitive. 

So what is an example of ineffective empathy? AT&T U-verse Customer Service or something similar. You know when you have to make those dreaded calls because your U-verse receiver stopped working, like mine did last week? After verifying you and your account, you finally get Craig on the phone; probably not the name he was born with judging by the Filipino accent and the likelihood that he is working out of a call-center in a distant land. You tell “Craig” that all the lights on the receiver are flashing, that the TV doesn’t work, and yes you tried unplugging and plugging the system back in and that didn’t help. At that point Craig will invariably offer words of empathy something along the lines of, “I know this must be very frustrating for you not to be able to access your TV. I know how disappointing that could be when it’s not working. This must be really upsetting for you.” 

Personally I cannot stand when they go into that part of their script. Sorry, Craig, but I really don’t need you to acknowledge my feelings and share my pain. I don’t know you, I will never meet you and most likely we will never speak to each other again after I hang up the phone. So please spare me the platitudes and go directly to a) remotely fixing the problem, b) sending me someone who can fix the receiver or c) send me another receiver. 

I’m sorry if I sound so callous. Yeah, I know that they’re trying to be nice, and marketing tells them that most people want this sort of touchy-feely reaction – but not me. You see, empathy is only meaningful if the person doing the empathizing means something to you. It only touches you if they have an honest and real place in your life. 

So here is an example of meaningful empathy that we came across in Daf Yomi recently: 

In the case of one who rents a donkey to ride on it and the donkey died halfway through the journey, the renter still has to pay the owner his fee for half of the journey, and the renter has nothing but a grievance against the owner. Which means that he has no legal claim against the owner over the fact that he now has to go to great trouble to find another donkey. 

And as Rabbi Wise explains: We sympathize with the aggrieved party. He has a right to be upset against the litigant, but not to the point where he has a financial claim against the person who inconvenienced him. 

The question is of what use is that fact that the Talmud points out that the renter has a legitimate grievance against the owner. What good is sympathy for the aggrieved party – he just wants to get his money back, he’s not looking for sympathy! 

Apparently the Talmud sees some worth in the fact that he has a legitimate grievance since in other cases it will mention when the person doesn’t have a reason to complain. So what is it worth that he has a legit gripe? Well, since he has taken the trouble to go to a Beit Din/Court which is made up of authority figures who are most likely people he respects and leaders of his community, there is something to this acknowledgment on their part that he has a legitimate complaint even though it gets him no money. There is real value when these Rabbis deny his financial claim but nevertheless empathize and tell him he has a right to feel upset. That does mean something because it is coming from people whom he admires and cares about. The people offering empathy are people who mean something to him. 

The point here is that empathy is meaningful if it is coming from people we care about, or from people who care about us or from people whom we admire and look up to and that we have some sort of relationship with. But when it comes from a random stranger in a call-center who is merely mouthing a script, then not only is it not helpful but it can get downright irritating. 

The second rule of effective empathy has to do with timing. There are times to offer it and times not to. I have mentioned in my piece about raising kids that many years ago, at the beginning of our parenting career, we turned to a book for advice. How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk emphasized listening to your kids and purports “to help listeners understand children’s emotions, gain cooperation, and learn new alternatives to discipline.” 

We tried very hard to follow its prescriptions of expressing back to our kids our understanding of their feelings of frustration when they would flay about during a tantrum. But despite our patient empathy, feeling their pain and acknowledging as much, it didn’t help. They would still foam at the mouth. 

And that’s because of a related idea mentioned in Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Fathers: Do not try to comfort a mourner whilst their dead lie before them. When someone is in the midst of a very difficult situation and/or are very emotional, words of sympathy are not only meaningless but are insensitive and hurtful. Expressing your understanding of your child’s feelings when there are in the midst of a meltdown is useless. And telling someone who just suffered a tragedy that “it’s all for the good” only rubs salt into the wound. Save your breath and just keep quiet. 

These are the two important things to keep in mind before offering words of empathy. Think ahead about what you mean to this person and consider if the timing is right. When those two factors align, then your words can and will have a deep and powerful impact in helping and healing another. 

I can hear your voice and I have no choice 
‘Cause the pain is too deep inside 
And the hurt of a love that is lost has no cure 
But the love of another heart 
Your friends try and say it will all get better 

They say that they know how you feel… 
All the words of wisdom 
Never seem to ease the pain 
All the words of wisdom sound the same 
-Christopher Cross 

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