St. Edith Stein (1891-1942) was a German Jewish theologian and philosopher who became a Catholic nun. She was killed in a Nazi gas chamber and venerated as a martyr by the Church.
Though not as famous as other saints, St. Edith Stein — also known as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross — was arguably one of the most brilliant Catholic minds of the 20th century. Her writings influenced another intellectual giant, Pope St. John Paul II.
She wrote on a wide variety of subjects. Here we want to look at her beautiful description of human empathy, a trait we could use a lot more of today.
Empathy is far more than sharing another person’s pain.
We usually speak of empathy in relation to someone’s pain. When a close friend loses a loved one, you empathize with them, often saying, “I feel your pain.” St. Edith Stein liked to speak of joyful empathy: “I feel your jubilation.”
Empathy is experiencing another’s feelings.
For this great saint, empathy did not proceed from deduction. You may deduce someone is sad from their facial expressions. You may feel for them by remembering the last time you were sad.
For St. Edith Stein, empathy went beyond this. She thought it was the ability to actually FEEL another person’s pain.
For example, you’re at a stadium and see an athlete get hit in the face by the ball. You would probably instantly wince because you’re experiencing the athlete’s experience of the pain.
St. Edith Stein would say that the pain is primordial for the athlete and con-primordial for you. It’s not your pain, but you’re experiencing it in a way. It’s an immediate experience, not a recalled memory.
There are still two different subjects.
If the athlete and you are experiencing the pain — the athlete directly and then you indirectly — does that mean there’s only one subject in pain?
According to St. Edith Stein, there are still two subjects: the spectator and the athlete: “I see you and I experience you experiencing the pain.” You’re related to the athlete as one subject to another. There’s a kind of unity and distinction.
Empathy undergirds the possibility of love.
If you don’t know that the athlete is another personal subject experiencing the world and you think he or she is an object, you love them for yourself. But if you know he or she is another personal subject, you can love them for themselves. Empathy gives you the “vision” to see them as another personal subject.
With no empathy, there’s no personal love. If we want to help love flourish, let’s work harder to see the world not only through our own eyes, but through the experiences of those around us.