True Empathy for Mark Sanford (and Everyone Else)

A big news story recently has been the saga of Mark Sanford, the South Carolina governor who is the latest in a series of big-name politicians caught having an extramarital affair. Many have reacted, not surprisingly, with outrage: It’s bad enough to cheat on your wife, they say, but it’s even worse when you have made a career of promoting conservative family values as Sanford has done. I recently read a piece, however, that suggests a different reaction to Sanford: empathy rooted in understanding that all of us are fallible. A Course in Miracles would agree that empathy is a proper response to Sanford or to anyone who makes a mistake or suffers in any way. However, it has a very different kind of empathy in mind.

Those who follow the news are familiar with the story: Sanford disappeared for a week and no one knew where he was, not even his wife. At first, the story was that he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. But eventually the truth came out in a press conference held by the governor: He had been to Argentina to visit a woman with whom he had been having an extramarital affair for about a year (though he had known her much longer). He has spoken in more detail about the affair in subsequent interviews. Since these revelations, many have called for him to resign, but he has made it clear he has no intention of doing so.

The piece I read, written by Peter Bregman for CNN, argues that while of course what Sanford did was wrong and he should be held accountable, we need to resist the temptation to be outraged, “because very little good comes from disgust and outrage. Mostly, those reactions simply serve to separate us from each other and, perhaps more important, ourselves.”

Instead, Bregman says, “We should empathize,” not only with Sanford but with everyone involved. In Bregman’s words, “We need to understand this situation for what it is: human weakness, poor judgment, personal longing and complicated relationships.” We need to refrain from throwing the first stone because we are equally fallible; empathizing with Sanford will enable us to get in touch with “our own feelings of vulnerability and weakness.” In short, empathizing with Sanford will help us realize that we’re all in the same boat. All of us make poor decisions that lead to suffering; we are not really so different from him. Why condemn him for simply being human?

Needless to say, A Course in Miracles is all for letting go of outrage. But in its view, empathy in the usual sense is not the way to do that. The Course says some very startling things about conventional empathy; in fact, it goes so far as to say that it isn’t true empathy at all. The opening line of the Text section called “True Empathy” states it bluntly: “To empathize does not mean to join in suffering, for that is what you must refuse to understand” (T-16.I.1:1). We think empathy means joining in another’s pain to ease his burden and help him heal, but this section tells us that “healing pain is not accomplished by delusional attempts to enter into it, and lighten it by sharing the delusion” (T-16.I.1:7).

Moreover, the Course material tells us that attempts to empathize with others through emphasizing our shared human fallibility are not only ineffective means of healing , but are actually attacks. They are a form of what the Song of Prayer calls “forgiveness-to-destroy,” false forgiveness that looks loving but is actually hateful. Any form of the idea “I am a miserable sinner and so are you” (T-9.V.1:5) — even a gentler like “You are a victim of human weakness and so am I” — is, in the Course’s view, an expression of the ego’s hatred, not of genuine compassionate love.

These ideas are startling, to be sure. Yet in support of its contention that empathizing with human weakness is an attack, the Course makes a telling point: “It is applied only to certain types of problems and in certain people” (T-16.I.2:1). Isn’t this true? The vast majority of the time, we empathize with the weakness of the particular people we identify with, while condemning the people who seem to be their victimizers. Bregman’s article makes this very point: He notes the double standards that liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans demonstrate regarding Bill Clinton and Sanford. The liberal Democrats are easy on Clinton but condemn Sanford; the conservative Republicans are easy on Sanford but condemn Clinton. Empathizing with weakness applies only to my people’s weakness. And selective empathy is an attack, at the very least on those you aren’t empathizing with.

This point, however, still doesn’t completely answer the crucial question: Why exactly is empathizing with weakness an attack, even on the one you are empathizing with? The answer lies in the Course’s view of who we really are. It claims that in truth, we are wholly invulnerable Sons of God, spiritual beings with limitless strength. But when we empathize with another person’s weakness, we deny that fact. We send a message that says, in effect, “You are not a limitless Son of God. You are a pathetic human being. You are worthless and weak.” It is like deluding a confused Superman into believing that he can’t really leap tall buildings in a single bound. Underneath whatever surface intention we have for empathizing, the Course says, the ego is doing it to weaken the other person in his own mind. “The ego always empathizes to weaken, and to weaken is always to attack” (T-16.I.2:5). How could trying to weaken someone not be an attack?

I know this sounds very abstract and metaphysical, and distant from our actual experience of daily life. Yet if we think about it, I think we can get in touch with the attack behind empathy as conventionally understood. After all, does such empathy really feel good? We’re essentially saying to someone, whatever words we actually use, “You poor dear, you’re just a lowly bug on the windshield of life. But hey, don’t despair: I’m a bug too. We splat together.” What a depressing thought! Is it really that difficult to believe that this kind of empathy is an attack, especially if it really is true that we’re so much more than bugs on a windshield?

How then, would the Course have us empathize with others? My dictionary defines empathy as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” What the Course wants us to learn how to do is empathize with a different set of feelings: not others’ feelings of weakness, but their feelings of strength, which still exist underneath their feelings of weakness. We are to get in touch with the part of us — the only real part of us — that recognizes and empathizes with the infinite Son of God in others. If we do this, if we will “empathize with strength,” we ourselves “will gain in strength and not in weakness” (T-16.I.2:7). We will discover the infinite Son of God in ourselves.

Does this mean that we should no longer have compassion for another’s suffering, but instead should callously say to everyone, “Stop whining. You’re really strong. Get over it”? Not at all. The Course wants us to feel tenderly for the suffering of others, and acknowledges that there is a place for relating to those who suffer because you have experienced suffering yourself. After all, even God Himself “weeps at the ‘sacrifice’ of His children who believe they are lost to Him” (T-5.VII.4:5). He feels our suffering “in His Own Being and its experience of His Son’s experience” (T-4.VII.6:6). Should we be less compassionate than God Himself? Of course not. The Course wants us to “look on stark insanity and raving madness with pity and compassion” (T-19.IV.D.11:2). It calls us to “Look about the world, and see the suffering there. Is not your heart willing to bring your weary brothers rest?” (W-pI.191.10:7-8).

But the Course offers a new kind of empathy in which we have a foot on both sides, so to speak: the side that can relate to the other person’s suffering and apparent weakness, and the side that realizes that in truth there is no suffering and the other person is in fact infinitely strong. We see this two-sided approach in the stance of Jesus, the author of the Course. Speaking of our insane belief in the reality of our body and ego, Jesus acknowledges that “I could not understand their importance to you if I had not once been tempted to believe in them myself” (T-4.I.13:5). He knows our weakness; he’s been there. But now he stands at the journey’s end in Heaven, so He simultaneously knows our true strength. This paradoxical stance is captured perfectly in this passage from the Workbook:

I take the journey with you. For I share your doubts and fears a little while, that you may come to me who recognize the road by which all fears and doubts are overcome. We walk together. I must understand uncertainty and pain, although I know they have no meaning. Yet a savior must remain with those he teaches, seeing what they see, but still retaining in his mind the way that led him out, and now will lead you out with him. (W-pI.rV.In.6:1-5)

What a practical stance! On the one hand, he shares our doubts and fears; he understands our uncertainty and pain. But on the other hand, he has overcome doubts and fears; he knows uncertainty and pain have no meaning. Precisely because he has both traveled the road we are on and has safely reached the destination, he is the perfect guide for our journey. He is the perfect savior.

Our job is to be saviors too. And fortunately, we don’t even have to wait until we get all the way to the destination as Jesus did to begin this role. Indeed, even the limitations we still have enable us to fulfill that role, for they represent the foot that stands on the worldly side of the bridge to Heaven, a foot which enables us as saviors to relate to those we would save:

Do not despair, then, because of limitations. It is your function to escape from them, but not to be without them. If you would be heard by those who suffer, you must speak their language. If you would be a savior, you must understand what needs to be escaped. (M-26.4:1-4)

We, then, are to practice our own version of Jesus’ stance: In our role as saviors, we are to speak to those who suffer in their own language, and at the same time get in touch with the place in them and in us that knows there is no suffering. Our goal is to relate to weakness from a position of strength. Yet how can we do this? How do we really practice this kind of empathy, for Mark Sanford or for anyone else in our lives? How do we develop the kind of empathy that Jesus demonstrates?

I think what we need to do is take steps to cultivate both sides of that dual stance. On the one hand, we cultivate compassion for the suffering of others. We “look about the world, and see the suffering there.” We look compassionately upon our own suffering as well. Apparent weakness and suffering is the common lot of everyone here at our current level of understanding; the Course doesn’t deny that this is our experience here. Seeing this opens our hearts and gives us the motivation to bring healing to all who suffer.

But on the other hand, we also cultivate the recognition of the reality that is beyond all suffering; the recognition that all of us truly are Sons of God, beings of infinite strength and absolute invulnerability. This cultivation is a process, of course, a process facilitated by following the path of the Course on a daily basis. The realization of this doesn’t come overnight; in fact, full realization doesn’t come until the very end of the journey. But we can take steps in the right direction every day.

How, then, do we relate to those who suffer or make mistakes like Mark Sanford has done? What do we say? What do we do? The “True Empathy” section emphasizes that we don’t really know what to say or do, and therefore we need to open up to the Holy Spirit and let Him guide us. Each situation is different and calls for a different response, but the key is that we “choose neither to hurt it nor to heal it in [our] own way” (T-16.I.3:2).

The “True Empathy” section promises, “Of this you may be sure; if you will merely sit quietly by and let the Holy Spirit relate through you, you will empathize with strength, and will gain in strength and not in weakness” (T-16.I.2:7). But the section does more; it gives us a practice to help us do just that, a practice in which we clear out our own past understanding of empathy and let our Guest, the Holy Spirit, tell us what to do.

I will conclude with this practice. May this open the door of your mind to true empathy for Mark Sanford or anyone else you are tempted to see as anything less than the holy Son of God:

Step gently aside, and let healing be done for you. Keep but one thought in mind and do not lose sight of it, however tempted you may be to judge any situation, and to determine your response by judging it. Focus your mind only on this:

I am not alone, and I would not intrude the past upon my Guest.

I have invited Him, and He is here.

I need do nothing except not to interfere.

True empathy is of Him Who knows what it is. You will learn His interpretation of it if you let Him use your capacity for strength, and not for weakness….Let Him offer you His strength and His perception, to be shared through you. (T-16.I.3:7-4:2, 5:9)


Source of material commented on: Commentary: Don’t get outraged at Sanford
[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
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