How do we define empathy, and is it possible to feel truly empathetic towards others in a perfect way?
According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of empathy reads, in part:
the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.
To feel empathy towards another denotes having experienced similar events or feelings that create an ability to be sensitive to others’ thoughts and emotions.
My family recently moved to a new city eight hours away from the home we had known for almost eight years. While moving is difficult and transitions can be hard for both kids and adults, in our case, all things were exacerbated when my 10-year-old son was targeted by a bully on day two in his new school. I watched as my son lost his fun, outgoing, happy self in a matter of days. We talked to teachers, the principal, the child himself, and, of course, our son. But I didn’t know exactly how to help my son. Why was he targeted? What could he do moving forward to avoid similar circumstances? I realized that, as much as I want to, I cannot be a fly on the wall at my son’s school. I can’t understand the bully and why he behaves the way he does. I can’t definitively help my son avoid being treated in such a manner — when all is said and done, I am not positive that it won’t happen again.
I decided to do what I thought was best and remove my son from the situation altogether. After all, we were new to the school and surely we could just transfer to another one and all would be well. I began to pray that the school we were actually zoned for would have an opening for my son. The school secretary assured me they would have room in the coming week and I prepared my son to look forward to a new school. Each day, I waited, called, and, to be frank, nagged the new school’s secretary for an answer to our transfer request, all the while praying that things would work out. But day after day, I wasn’t getting an answer from the school, so I decided that perhaps the right thing to do was to change my prayers.
I still remember being in my car when I changed my prayer to “not my will be done, but thine.” I asked Heavenly Father to do what was best for my son, even if that meant staying at the current school and learning to handle tough situations. Before I even finished my prayer, the new school called and I was told my son would not be able to attend after all. I finally realized that I wasn’t the one who understood what was best for my son — only my Savior did.
In Alma 7:11-12, we read about how the Savior took upon Himself our sufferings, pains, afflictions, and temptations so that He would be able to have empathy and mercy and know how to succor His people according to their infirmities.
And he shall go forth, suffering pains andand of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.
And he will take upon him, that he may the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to his people according to their infirmities.
Because of what Jesus Christ alone went through, only He knows exactly what my son needs and how to help him through his pains and afflictions.
The Savior’s perfection allows Him to react differently to pain and suffering. He doesn’t complain or fight or give up. He loves through the pain, forgives those who cause the pain, and even helps change their hearts if they allow Him to. When we rely on His perfect knowledge of our circumstances — His complete empathy towards our pain and His remarkable ability to succor that pain — we will find the peace that passeth all understanding.
Janette Beverley is a lover of life, family, music, and the gospel of Jesus Christ. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology with an emphasis in marriage and family therapy, and has five amazing children and one equally amazing husband. Janette is excited to be writing for LDS Blogs and sharing her love and passion for finding the miraculous among the mundane, the awe-inspiring among the obvious, and the uplifting among the underestimated. To read more of her work, you can visit Janette's personal blog here.