In defense of empathy
U.S. Senators are considering a nominee for the Supreme Court, and I want to testify on behalf of a word. The word is "empathy." It's taken a real beating the past few weeks, since the President said he finds nominee Sonia Sotomayor to be someone skilled in empathy. From some people's reactions, you'd think empathy was the eighth deadly sin. Critics seemed to have confused it with feeling sorry for someone and automatically being on their side. But that is closer to "sympathy." Empathy is something else. It is an intellectual ability, a capacity of the mind. It is the capability to move out of the limitations of how I see or experience something and understand that someone else has a different view - and a view that is of value to me, because it helps me perceive or understand more fully. Empathy helps me to be smarter, you might say. Empathy is humble. It is able to admit - unless hampered by some psychological quirk - that I do not know everything, that I might be wrong, that my answers are not the only ones. It can say to the other person, "Yes, yes, I see. You are absolutely right!" Empathy listens. It doesn't listen just waiting to announce my more valid take on things. It really listens. And empathy, if it doesn't understand right off, asks questions and listens more until it does. Empathy is hard work. It takes effort to give up the egocentric, very human belief that my perspective is the only right one. And empathy cooperates. It knows that one plus one can come up with so much more than I can alone. Empathy respects the other. The Supreme Court, it seems, is all about empathy. Nine justices, each with an individual view. Each with different life experience. Nine justices, increasingly diverse and (if you value empathy) all the better a court for it. Judges who listen. Listen to litigants, and listen to each other. Justices, who even in their final pronouncements, value the articulation of the minority view. The Supreme Court doesn't work without empathy. Over one's years, empathy tends to ripen into a sacred quality. It becomes wisdom or, as the voice of Wisdom says in the Hebrew Scriptures, it becomes walking in the way of understanding. And so, when empathy has led to that level of understanding, it is simple logic that a wise Latina woman - which is our preoccupation these days - or for that matter a wise white man, or any wise person, is more likely to make fair, just decisions. Because of empathy. Beth Resler Walters is an executive speech writer in Charlotte.