What is it and why is it important?
Empathy is the capacity to walk in another's shoes, to know by experience what they are feeling and to view things from their perspective. It helps one to comprehend another's actions and to give advice and comfort when needed. It is different from sympathy. You can sympathize with many, basic human compassion, but it takes a shared experience to empathize. For example: I can sympathize with and reach out to care for someone who has lost a child , but I cannot empathize because I have never had a child, let alone lost one.
On the other hand, I can empathize with someone who has lost a parent, because years ago I lost both my parents (at different times) and so I know first hand how it feels. I can help (and have helped) someone walk through the process of grief - and I know that it is a process,not just a one-time deal.Is my degree of caring different in the two cases? No, but my capacity to understand and aid is.
Why is this important? Because today empathy is getting maligned by those who, in my opinion, have no concept of what it means. President Obama stated as one of the desired qualities of a Supreme Court nominee that they be a person who demonstrates empathy. His selection of Sonia Sotomayor has been attacked, because people mistakenly tag empathy as being "code" for bias, prejudice, or giving preferential treatment to minorities. They have taken out of context her "wise Latina" comment. Her comment about a "wise Latina" being a better judge than a white male was in the context of cases involving discrimination on the basis of race or gender. In those cases a "wise Latina" would have a much greater capacity to understand the position of the one alleging discriminaton than a white male judge, because of her personal struggle to overcome discrimination. The better a judge understands the positions of the parties to a case the better they can make a wise decision.
The problem with some people is that they seeing judicial proceedings as simply intellectual exercises, detective processes, or comparative philosophical debates. They fail to see that it involves real people -more on that in another post - and that their decisions have to take into account the effects on those lives as well as the specific points of law. Otherwise real people get hurt.
For Biblical reference - see Hebrews 4:15 - seeking to encourage us the writer says of Jesus - "for we have not a high priest who cannot be touched with the feelings of our infirmities, but who was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin"...He knew what it was like to be hungry,thirsty,tired, abandoned, betrayed, slandered, pulled about in every which way and enticed to do wrong -yet he did not yield to it. He , the righteous judge, empathizes with us, yet loves us all equally. That is the model for a judge and I applaud President Obama for the wise choice he has made. Not only is she highly qualified academically (first in her college class, high honors graduate) and career-wise (nearly 17 years on the federal bench, in legal practice of one sort or other for nearly 30 years), but she has overcome barriers of race and gender and seeks to help others do the same.