Empathy and Discipleship
A friend sent me an article from the latest issue of The Atlantic magazine with an arresting title: “Power Causes Brain Damage” (www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/07/power-causes-brain-damage/528711/). In it, Jerry Useem explores some of the latest research about the effect of power on the brains of people who have it. We’ve understood for centuries that power seems to change people: think about common phrases like “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely” and “The power went to her head.” Now, there is actual proof of some of the effects on the brain of having power. Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, has studied this subject for twenty years. He has found that people under the influence of power act as if they’ve suffered a traumatic brain injury. They become more impulsive and less aware of risks. And perhaps most crucially, people under the influence of power become less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view. Keltner studies behavior, but his observations have been borne out by other scientists who study the brain. Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University, in Ontario, put the heads of the powerful and the not-so powerful under a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine, he found that power, in fact, impairs a specific neural process, “mirroring,” that may be a cornerstone of empathy. Mirroring is a sub-conscious activity that we all engage in to some extent. For instance, if we see someone squeezing a rubber ball with their left hand, our brain sub-consciously fires up neurons and nerve pathways that would enable us to squeeze a rubber ball with our left hand. Mirroring is why we wince when we see someone smack their elbow on a door jamb or get a paper cut: our brains sub-consciously light up in those areas where we would feel pain if the same thing had happened to us. Normal brains go through life living vicariously through the experiences of those around us. This mirroring is the foundation of empathy, because we mirror emotional reactions in a similar way. If we see someone crying, part of us feels sad; if we see someone who is anxious, we begin to to feel anxious as well.
The problem with having power is that the mirroring activity of the brain seems to slow down. It’s as if the brain of a person with power stops paying attention to world around it, stops noticing and copying what other people are doing and feeling. The brains of power people stop mirroring the actions and emotions of those around them, so they no longer feel or sense what others are experiencing. Feeling happy when others are happy or tense when others are tense helps provide a window into where they are coming from. Powerful people “stop simulating the experience of others,” Keltner says, which leads to what he calls an “empathy deficit.”
Maybe you’re like me when I first read this and thinking “Well, that explains the behavior of some of those folks we see on the news, politicians/bank executives/celebrities, etc. Thank goodness I’m not a powerful person so it doesn’t apply to me!” Here’s the rub, though. This effect, this empathy deficit, is not tied to actual power. Rather, empathy deficit kicks in when you’re feeling powerful. So, when you’re particularly proud of something you’ve accomplished, or you’ve been lavishly complimented about your work or your looks or your appearance, or you’ve just won an argument with a friend or co-worker, or for whatever reason you’re feeling on top of the world, your brain spends less time and energy on mirroring and you begin to feel less empathy for others. For most of us, most of the time, that’s a temporary situation. We trip on something and feel foolish, or make a stupid mistake, or talk to someone who subtly or not-so-subtly reminds us that we’re really not all that. That feeling of power slips away, and our brain function returns to normal. It’s when we become used to feeling powerful over a long period of time that our mirroring and empathy can become seriously impacted. Hubris, feeling overly self-confident and powerful, makes us less able to empathize and leads us to become dis-connected from others in unhealthy and potentially destructive ways. Remembering times when we didn’t feel powerful, listening to and accepting constructive criticism, focusing less on our accomplishments and achievements, lets our brains function they way they should and strengthens our empathy for and connection with others.
History, not to mention our current culture, is filled with examples of leaders whose sense of power and hubris got the best of them, as well as leaders who figured out how to stay grounded. Take Winston Churchill, a man for whom the term hubris almost seems to have been invented. Churchill was indeed a powerful leader with an ego that often threatened to get out of control. He had, however, a great gift: his wife, Clementine. When she observed his hubris getting the best of him, when he stopped paying attention to the advice of other leaders, when he started trampling on the feelings and dignity of his subordinates, she knew how to take him down a notch or two, knew how to pull him back from the brink. She’d write him a note, or corner him while he was in the bathtub, or remind him while dinner was being served that he was getting entirely too full of himself and needed to remember that, for all his gifts, he was still only a human being.
In this morning’s reading from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is wrapping up his extensive, and really pretty harsh and disheartening, commissioning instructions to the disciples. They’re to travel light, take no money or food or extra clothing. He tells them people won’t like what they’re saying, that they’ll be attacked and hated. If you were here last week, you heard Jesus say some very difficult things about what it means to be a disciple. “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me,” he says, and “whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” He concludes by saying “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Jesus sets the bar for discipleship impossibly high. But then, I think, his natural sense of empathy kicks in. He looks around at his disciples. There’s Peter, trying to look resolute and determined to follow Jesus no matter what, but we know what happens when the going gets tough: Peter ends up denying even knowing Jesus. There’s James, whose jaw has dropped in shock. How can Jesus be saying that following him will tear families apart; doesn’t Jesus care about keeping families together, building up relationships between husbands and wives and sons and daughters, don’t families come first? John looks angry. He loves Jesus, and he gave up a pretty decent living as a fisherman to follow him. He’s dealt with the complaining letters from his wife about no money coming in, about where she’s supposed to find food to feed their children. He’s listened to Jesus for hours and hours, even when it’s hard to make heads or tails of what he’s saying, hoping that someday he would come to understand him. And now, he’s supposed to take up a cross, follow him to his death? It’s too much, it’s not what he signed up for, and even if he did die with Jesus, what would that accomplish? The other disciples are mostly just depressed. Mary Magdalene is almost in tears, because she knows as much as she wants to follow Jesus, she’s not willing to risk her life for him.
Fortunately for the disciples, and for us, Jesus looks at their reactions, he empathizes with their sense of being of overwhelmed, frightened, not up to the task. This leads him to realize that they need something simpler, something concrete they that can work on, some kind of task they can accomplish. So he says to the disciples, and to us, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous.” Even this is still too vague, and so Jesus says, “Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” The disciples look around at each other, and they all begin to breathe easier. Discipleship may sometimes require huge sacrifice or great feats, but Jesus says that most of the time, it’s nothing more complicated than giving a cup of cold water to someone who is in need. Maybe it’s offering a hug to someone who is grieving, or listening to a friend who is in need of a little support. Maybe it’s offering a ride to someone without a car, or donating a little food to the local food bank. Maybe it’s volunteering your time so that your church is a warm and inviting place to worship, or leading a support group for people struggling with a disease. Maybe it’s giving money to agencies that help folks in need, or helping out in the community garden that provides healthy food to people in need. As David Lose, a Lutheran writer I read a lot, says, “Discipleship doesn’t have to be heroic. Like all the small acts of devotion, tenderness, and forgiveness that go largely untouched but tend the relationships that are most important to us, so also the life of faith is composed of a thousand small gestures. Except that, according to Jesus, there is no small gesture. Anything done in faith and love has cosmic significance for the ones involved and, indeed, for the world God loves so much.”
The author Elizabeth Gilbert tells this story. “Some years ago, I was stuck on a crosstown bus in New York City during rush hour. Traffic was barely moving. The bus was filled with cold, tired people who were deeply irritated—with one another; with the rainy, sleety weather; with the world itself. Two men barked at each other about a shove that might or might not have been intentional. A pregnant woman got on, and nobody offered her a seat. Rage was in the air; no mercy would be found here. But as the bus approached Seventh Avenue, the driver got on the intercom. "Folks," he said, "I know you've had a rough day and you're frustrated. I can't do anything about the weather or traffic, but here's what I can do. As each one of you gets off the bus, I will reach out my hand to you. As you walk by, drop your troubles into the palm of my hand, okay? Don't take your problems home to your families tonight—just leave 'em with me. My route goes right by the Hudson River, and when I drive by there later, I'll open the window and throw your troubles in the water. Sound good?" It was as if a spell had lifted. Everyone burst out laughing. Faces gleamed with surprised delight. People who'd been pretending for the past hour not to notice each other's existence were suddenly grinning at each other like, is this guy serious?
Oh, he was serious. At the next stop—just as promised—the driver reached out his hand, palm up, and waited. One by one, all the exiting commuters placed their hand just above his and mimed the gesture of dropping something into his palm. Some people laughed as they did this, some teared up—but everyone did it. The driver repeated the same lovely ritual at the next stop, too. And the next. All the way to the river.” (www.oprah.com/inspiration/Elizabeth-Gilbert-May-2016-O-Magazine)
Gilbert goes on to reflect that that bus driver wasn’t some big power player, he wasn’t a spiritual leader, he wasn’t a media-savvy “influencer.” What he had, though, was the ability to empathize with his tired, wet, cranky, frustrated, and generally hostile passengers. He connected with where they were at, and figured out the little thing, the light-hearted, easy, simple thing that he could do in that moment to lessen their burdens.
Mirroring and empathy are gifts from God, hard-wired into our brains to help us connect with and understand one another. We are meant to look out for one another, help each other out, see things from the other’s perspective. When we’re not overly impressed with ourselves, when we’ve kept our egos in check, when we remember that we’re not the most important person in the room, we are naturally inclined to empathize and connect with people around us. It’s so much a part of who we are that we’re not even conscious of it: our brains do it automatically. Jesus shows us, time and time again, that this gift of empathy is the foundation, the bedrock, of discipleship. Jesus lived his life and ministry with a keen awareness of those around him, sharing their experiences, sharing their feelings, seeing life from their perspective. He felt the loneliness of the woman at the well in the heat of the day, the anxiety of the widow searching frantically for a lost penny, the desolation of the outcast lepers, the hunger of people who never had quite enough to eat. That empathy led him to do what he could for the people he came in contact with. He invites the disciples, and he invites us, to do the same. It’s not difficult, he tells us. It’s as simple, as natural, as offering a cold cup of water to someone who is thirsty. Amen.
The Rev. Paul Frolick has been the priest at St. George's since August 2012.