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Empathy, Ruminations, and the Way of the Fathers

July 4, 2014

christ_with_sheep_1024x1024_000f40e8-e672-4000-8125-a77694d48331_1024x1024In continuing the discussion of psychological antecedents to forgiveness, psychologists rightly place a high value on the trait of empathy. Riek and Mania write, “Empathy consists of cognitively perceiving the world from another’s perspective and emotionally experiencing what another feels (Stephan & Finlay, 1999; Wade & Worthington, 2005). A number of models of forgiveness posit empathy as a key variable in the process of forgiveness (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2000; Worthington, 1998). On the basis of work linking empathy with altruism, McCullough and colleagues (1997) predicted and found that empathy was also linked with higher levels of forgiveness.”

Empathy involves a shift from a focus on my feelings in being wronged to an awareness of how the other person was feeling before the transgression and is now feeling afterwards. Empathy not only broadens our perspective beyond the orbit of self, but also provides the cognitive space in which we can perceive our own capacity to commit the same transgression. This change in thought and feeling, in turn, makes room for sympathy, compassion, and forgiveness.

Although the fathers did not use the term empathy (which entered the English language in 1909 as a not particularly successful translation of the German Einfühlungsvermögen, given that empathy in Greek has always meant being impassioned against someone), they certainly were familiar with empathy’s close cousins, compassion and sympathy, and spoke about aspects of empathy that Christians would do well to cultivate. In the Russian redaction of the work Unseen Warfare, Theophan the Recluse counsels, “Never allow yourself boldly to judge your neighbour; judge and condemn, no one, especially for the particular bodily sin of which we are speaking. If someone has manifestly fallen into it, rather have compassion and pity for him. Do not be indignant with him or laugh at him, but let his example be a lesson in humility to you; realizing that you too are extremely weak and as easily, moved to sin as dust on the road, say to yourself: ‘He fell today, but tomorrow I shall fall.’ Know that, if you are quick to blame and despise others, God will mete out a painful punishment to you by letting you fall into the same sin for which you blame others. ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged’ (Matt. vii. 1); you will be condemned to the same punishment, in order to learn from it the perniciousness of your pride and, thus humbled, to seek a cure from two evils: pride and fornication. Even if in His mercy God protects you from downfall and you keep the chastity of your thought inviolate, stop blaming others if you were blaming them, and instead of relying on yourself, be still more afraid and do not trust your own steadfastness.”

If a Christian exchanges compassion and pity, for judgment and condemnation, the path to forgiveness is opened. And one spiritual way to do that is through the empathy-promoting saying of Abba Dorotheos: “him today, surely me tomorrow” (Discourse 6). This brings humility and an awareness of our own frailty. It makes it easier not to judge, not to blame, not to condemn, but instead to be compassionate, loving, and forgiving. It is also significant that our focus is on the person who is in many ways like us, not on what the person has done that offends us.

The reason for this focus will become clear if we turn to the issue of ruminating over offenses. Riek and Mania write, “Another major influence on forgiveness is rumination. Increases in rumination are associated with decreases in forgiveness (Berry, 2001; Kachadorurian, Fincham, & Davila, 2005; McCullough et al., 1998). It appears that the more one focuses on past transgressions, the harder it is for him or her to forgive.”

Harmful rumination coincides with the patristic teaching on the remembrance of wrongs (μνησικακία) that Ammonios Grammaticus defined as long-standing anger in contrast to a short outburst (On the Difference of Synonymous Expressions). For the fathers, the remembrance of wrongs is a passion of self-defense, related to anger and pride, that increases these passions to such an extent that they can lead a person to murder and bloodshed (Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Canonical Letter to Letoium, PG 45.225). According to Saint Syncletica, “Anger is like smoke that briefly obstructs the soul’s vision and then disappears, but the remembrance of wrongs makes that soul into a wild beast” (Life of Syncletica, PG 28.1524). This is why the fathers counsel us to cut off thoughts about others especially as they relate to their slights and offenses. Thus, Saint Maximus the Confessor would counsel: “Do not recall in times of peace what was said by a brother in times when there were bad feelings between you, even if offensive things were said to your face, or to another person about you, and you subsequently heard of them. Otherwise you will harbor thoughts of the remembrance of wrongs and revert to your destructive hatred of your brother” (Fourth Century on Love, 34). Perhaps, the best treatment for rumination or the remembrance of wrongs is prayer that unites us with our longsuffering, compassionate, forgiving Heavenly Father and that can make us a bit more like Him (Saint Gregory of Nyssa, On the Lord’s Prayer).

Empathy is helpful in terms of providing us the opportunity to see another’s fault as potentially our own and to become compassionate, understanding, and a bit more humble. Ruminating on the actions of another is on the contrary harmful in terms of moving us rapidly from that terrible action to that horrible person with whom we have no desire to empathize. The way of empathy is a path to compassion, sympathy, and humility that makes room for forgiveness, while the way of rumination (or remembrance of wrongs) is a road that leaves us in a pit a pit of bitterness, seething with anger and a desire for vengeance that precludes the possibility of forgiveness. From psychological research and from the wisdom of the fathers, we can see that for the peace of forgiveness to be ours we need to focus our attention on the sinner to be loved rather than the sin to be hated in a spirit of humility and with the acknowledgement of our own weaknesses and capacity to offend.

Elizabeth Gassin writes in her article, “Interpersonal Forgiveness From an Eastern Orthodox Perspective,” that “The passion of anger, which is often rooted in pride (Mark the Ascetic, 1979), also plays a role in the struggle to forgive. Because anger is seen as a vice, a goal of spiritual growth in the Orthodox tradition is to develop the ability to react to offenses with sympathy and prayer for the offender and to evaluate sin in oneself (Archimandrite Sophrony, 1974; Benigsen, 1997; Ilias the Presbyter, trans. 1984; Peter of Damascus, trans. 1984; Ustiuzhanin, 2000). (Interestingly, the importance of empathy for an offender in forgiveness has received some empirical support in the work of McCullough, Worthington, and colleagues [Worthington, 1998; McCullough et al., 1998; McCullough, Worthington, & Rachal, 1997].) Anger at another in defense of oneself basically has no support in Orthodox writings.”

The Psalm chanted during every Orthodox Vespers is an apt one in terms of a discussion about empathy, ruminations and the way of the Fathers:

Lord, I cry unto thee: make haste unto me; give ear unto my voice, when I cry unto thee.

Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.

Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips.

Incline not my heart to any evil thing, to practice wicked works with men that work iniquity: and let me not eat of their dainties.

Let the righteous smite me; it shall be a kindness: and let him reprove me; it shall be an excellent oil, which shall not break my head: for yet my prayer also shall be in their calamities.

When we turn to God humbly in prayer, when we close off unprofitable inner dialogue with a door about our lips, when we incline our heart only towards that which is good, we can look at our brother as our brother, our sister as our sister, with compassion, with empathy, without rumination, and yes with forgiveness.

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