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Edith Stein on Empathy and Suffering

Response to Carmelite Lecture 2011, Frances Horner, ocd (Baltimore Carmel)

The question is – how do we suffer for and with others, and what makes this suffering transformational? The answer, I believe, is empathy. I want to explore how empathy connects to community, which has been identified as central for suffering to be expiatory and salvific. (Click to download)

I want to respond to Sarah Borden’s reference (Carmelite Lecture 2011) to empathy, and explore how it connects to community, which Sarah identified as central for suffering to be expiatory and salvific.

In Sarah’s essay, empathy is presented by reference to its limits – it “simply” helps one understand the perspective of another. It is mentioned primarily to contrast with the more fulsome and transformational idea of community, which is praised not just as the place where I understand your experience, but as the place where an experience, a common perspective, becomes “ours.” Following this line of thought, some would say that “community” is the key for humanity to find its fullest expression, even to evolve a transformed consciousness. Surely suffering is a price worth paying to achieve that end, as Sarah’s essay suggests. Yet in the desire to emphasize community, perhaps a disservice is done to empathy, for it can fill in part of Sarah’s puzzle. Stein would say that authentic community is possible only when each member lives with empathy, in empathic embrace of the other. Also, Stein insisted that this empathy does not, CANNOT mean the dissolution of one’s own perspective. The point is more than a mere clarification; it goes to the nature of the community and the unity that should be our goal. For in the effort to make a perspective “ours,” there has been across history a destructive excess that too swiftly develops into totalitarianism or its lesser evil, exclusionary society. The degree of danger all depends on what we mean when we say “ours.”

To understand Stein’s subtly nuanced vision of “ours,” of community, it is essential to grasp her empathy, for it is the critical operative factor. I promise we will get back to what all this has to do with suffering – though, you might have a communal experience of suffering first as I make you step through Stein’s philosophy of empathy. According to Stein, empathy is defined as “acts in which foreign experience is comprehended.” She also describes empathy as “how human beings comprehend the psychic life of their fellows.” Let me restate in today’s terminology: Stein’s empathy is an unflinching encounter with alterity (otherness). For an encounter to be empathy, Stein says, we must refuse to reduce the “other” to the horizon of the same. Stein gives two ways a reduction to sameness can happen. The first is assimilation by imitation, where I negate my own experience and take on yours. Humanity’s mimetic impulse is one way of making an experience “ours,” but it is destructive, producing outsiders and scapegoats as Réné Girard tells us. A second way to achieve “sameness” is suppression or negation of the other’s experience by appropriation. I appropriate your experience by reinterpreting it to fit my own. I project my own values and experience onto your circumstances – I know how you feel, we say. But this is NOT empathy. Neither assimilation of a foreign experience nor suppression of it engages alterity in its truth, that is, encounters the “other” in a way that permits it to be what it is – to be different.

How, then, can a human person have a truly empathic encounter? The answer lies in de-centering the self through a transcendent exercise of the free will. Stein says: “we lock ourselves into the prison of our individuality” when “we take the self as the standard.” To avoid assimilation and suppression when encountering another, the human person has to stop using his/her own self as the standard of reality. Stein describes a process of empathy whose core is making the other person subject and not object. The experience of the “other” first faces me as an object (I read sadness in your face), and as I try to bring this object into clear view, I allow its content to pull me into itself, so that it is no longer an object. Instead, I am at the subject of the content in the original subject’s place. Now my temptation is to suppress you while I surround myself with your situation – that is to appropriate your experience. This dynamic process will become empathy only if the subject of the empathized experience remains the other person, and not me. Although I am at the subject of the experience, I am not the subject. We have to set ourselves aside and try to encounter the world of the other person as she/he does: not how I would feel in your place, but how you yourself feel in the face of the situation, given your unique life experience, psychology, physical make-up, talents and shortcomings. The empathic experience is not one of judging or agreeing/disagreeing. It is an experience of comprehension.

After I allow myself to encounter the other’s experience in this way, I can “explain” it and return it to an object of my own consciousness. Stein emphasizes: one returns to the self. I choose to suspend my “I” for a time, but I do not abandon or obliterate it. Instead, my “self” is educated, possibly even changed by the encounter. I gain the power to be a “self” grounded in relation to the other. Empathy therefore encompasses both a going-out of self and a remaining in self (Stein’s definition of spirit, the ideal of which is God). This is crucial, for it is one way that Stein nuances her ethics — her responsibility to the “other” — with a balance sometimes lacking in contemporary theories of alterity and ethical responsibility. Stein insists that the experience of the “other” helps the self to blossom forth in all its individual distinctiveness. There is nothing homogenizing or totalizing in Stein’s conception.

Stein offers a helpful image of what takes place in the empathic encounter: one discovers a new point of orientation. A truly empathic encounter not only allows me to receive a new zero-point of orientation from the other, but also to keep my own. The world I perceive and the world given to me empathically are “the same world differently seen … [T]he new standpoint does not step into the old one’s place. I retain them both at the same time…” I “no longer consider my own zero point as the zero point, but as a spatial point among many.” Empathy, undertaken through an act of de-centering the self, therefore admits into my consciousness the possibility of a world-view different from my own – not a view I have to make my own, but a view I recognize as equally valid, equally legitimate. Perhaps the most significant consequence of this experience is that the boundaries of my own consciousness are broken through, for the world has become independent of it. And this results in “a new paradigm that permits the co-existence of very different opinions.”

The co-existence of very different opinions sounds like it might be a cacophony, a chaos, at least an experience of fragmentation. And so it has been – fragmentation is a well-known symptom of the post-modern era. Yet I believe Stein teaches us that fragmentation happens because our diversity is not grounded in empathy. For this reason culture has oscillated between the extremes of individualism and of homogenizing community. Each time individualism breaks through and unsettles the comforting uniformity of community, a backlash happens. From the “clashing alternatives” of so many individuals, there follows “an almost unbearable tension threatening to break up the fabric of society,” a “splinter[ing] of the world.” Throughout history, movements opening up the world to a true diversity of perspective have been repeatedly checked and muted, often violently, by attempts to retrieve a totalizing kind of community – in fact Edith Stein was killed by one – the Nazi state. There is a mighty subconscious impulse to have a uniform outlook, at least within one’s own group. This is the danger of “ours.”

Stein’s concept of community is radically different. There, diversity need not cause fragmentation. Instead, through the practice of empathy, Stein expects unity to emerge in the very midst of differing outlooks. This kind of unity does not arise from agreement; it arises from mutual comprehension. Fragmentation occurs only so long as we take others as objects and ourselves as the only subject. If instead I could allow my consciousness to comprehend many subjects, to see the legitimacy of many points of orientation and mine just one among many, I would not feel disoriented, for I would not have staked out a fixed position from which diverse alternatives threaten my peace. The only means to move the concluding experience of diversity away from fragmentation and towards unity is through a community where every action is informed by empathic understanding among the individual members – empathic community. Stein’s genius, balancing the tension between the two poles of individualism and absolute community, is characteristic of the Carmelite charism: she found a middle way that is life-giving.

What does all this have to do with suffering (and specifically suffering for one another in community)? Before I articulate the theory, I have a striking example that will be far more effective to explain how empathy and suffering relate. I owe this example to Colette Ackerman, currently our prioress in Baltimore Carmel. Remember that dramatic scene Sarah invoked, where the Nazi soldiers come to take Edith Stein from her monastery. Stein’s legendary words of leave-taking – Come, Rosa, let us go for our people – are so moving, so inspiring. Whether Stein actually said it or not, the statement expresses history’s understanding of Stein’s empathic embrace of those who were suffering from the Nazi persecution. This is obvious, but it does not fully illustrate empathic community because Stein, after all, was Jewish; she did share a common ethnic bond with others who were taken.

It is just preceding this scene where the example comes of a higher, harder, form of empathic suffering. Unfortunately it is a negative example, a failure of empathy. The soldiers appear at the door, and the prioress is called and told to surrender Sr. Teresa Benedicta. Sr. Colette says: “How did she do it? The prioress actually let her go.” Today we can ask: what would empathic community demand? If Stein must be taken, then all the sisters go with her: all the sisters, those not implicated in the Nazi round-up, those whose backgrounds and perspectives are different. Their solidarity would affirm that notwithstanding their differences, and without pretending them away, these human persons are integrally interconnected. On the basic level of human dignity, they are one. In empathic community, each person would be willing even to die rather than to deny this basic truth. It didn’t happen. But just imagine if it had.

And is this not what Jesus did? The mystery of the Cross is to take someone else’s suffering as your own, even while knowing that it is not your own. It is not to assimilate, mimic or appropriate the other’s suffering, but to take it on nonetheless. It is to affirm that our common bond is in God, from whence comes the universal right to human dignity. The secret to living out this compassion, this suffering-with-another, is the mutual comprehension of empathy. I understand your suffering and offer to carry it, to embrace it, even though it is not properly mine.

These insights from Edith Stein compel me to dare call into question the language of “self-dispossession” so often invoked as the highest virtue and most necessary practice for humanity’s transformation. Self-dispossession is not the only way to take on another’s burden of suffering, of sin. There is another way, grounded less in negation and more in an affirmation of our fundamental nature. Stein says we are made to become ever more conformed to God. Is God selfless? Is God dispossessed of self? We cannot know, but I imagine not. I like to think instead that God is that self who possesses and holds and welcomes all other selves, without totalizing them, without limiting them, mysteriously allowing their boundlessness even while unifying them in love. This is the challenge of empathy, and it is so hard. How many of us are not the star of our own show? How often do I let my own experience rule my understanding of another? Have I ever tried to put myself at the center of your experience without stepping into the role of subject myself? This takes an effort at knowing the “other” that goes beyond head-knowledge, to the loving knowledge of contemplation. It is only through the receptivity nurtured in contemplation that we can even begin to know what it means to allow someone else to be the subject. We need education for contemplation. We need education for empathy.

I hope you can see why empathy involves suffering. Yet empathy is also suffering’s end, for therein lies the hope of changing our paradigm to recognize the sacredness of every human person, the interconnectedness of all creation, and the beauty of diversity. We can change the nature of the life-power on the current of consciousness. This hope is why empathy is transformational, redemptive, salvific. This hope is where suffering gains its meaning and dignity. And when empathic community extends throughout the world, our acts of empathy will no longer cause us pain. For empathic community, fully established, will surely be heaven.




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