A Kick in the Shins: Where Empathy (Without Authority) Gets You

I found this section amusing from a New York Times story on how one school is going out of its way to teach “empathy” to its students:

“On the bar mitzvah circuit, students have started handing out alternatives like water bottles and pajama pants. Jason Thurm, 13, collected more than 200 of the personalized sweatshirts from his friends and donated them to a church; for his own party in November, Jason did not have favors, and planned to donate the money his parents would have spent on them to a charity.

In the cafeteria, Alex Primavera, 12, described empathy as putting himself in someone else’s shoes. He said he had been trying not to put down his classmates or call them “moron” and “idiot.” Then he yelled at another student to shut up. “He tries but he doesn’t get very far,” said Alan Zhong, 12, adding that Alex had just kicked him in English class.”

It’s funny, because you can teach empathy all you like, but if you don’t teach a corresponding doctrine of authority, you will observe, in rapid succession, abuse of that empathy.  Empathy will become a cover for acting however one wishes to act.

It’s funny how old this idea is.  A traditional view of human nature is far wiser than the modern view.  It’s not that it’s abstractedly brilliant or theoretically impressive.  It’s grounded in simple common sense, in a plain, honest view of the way we are.  It comprehends that, however one defines it, humans are naturally brutish and sinful.  Accordingly, when applied to society, it advocates for both freedom and law.

We find this same idea in Christian theology and biblical doctrine.  Grace is alive and well in Christianity, but it proceeds out of a full and honest comprehension of the human condition and the corresponding need for authority.  Grace, we might say, frees us from both.  It saves us from sin and the judgment it incurs on the one hand and from the law and its oppressive weight on the other.

This theological principal, which accords with the most common-sense view of the world, cries out to be applied today.  We must not think that we can simply reason our way out of evil.  We cannot and must not expect our fellow human beings to act justly and kindly.  We are depraved from birth, and we must take measures to guard ourselves and our fellow man against sin.  In a sense, we must guard ourselves against ourselves.  If we do not, we will become our own victims.

Of course, this more philosophical approach may not connect in quite the same way as a kick to the shins will.  As the wry and bruised commenter notes, much as we claim a perspective of empathy and push for its adoption by others, we’ll still get kicked.  Much more so if we pretend that such abuses do not exist and will go away if we all agree to keep our feet, so to speak, to ourselves.

  • thomastwitchell

    “It’s funny, because you can teach empathy all you like, but if you don’t teach a corresponding doctrine of authority, you will observe, in rapid succession, abuse of that empathy. Empathy will become a cover for acting however one wishes to act.”

    In reality, empathy is biblically impossible: “The heart knows its own bitterness,
    and no stranger shares its joy.” The only one for whom it is possible to have empathy is God who alone knows the heart.


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