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GROWING UP CATHOLIC | Lessons from Edith Stein on the value of empathy

I recently got motivated and looked up a poll of New Year resolutions. Top of the list was, “Nothing.” Second place was, “Weight Loss.” My finger scrolled down and finally settled on, “Become a better person.”

If you skip the whole resolution thing because it’s an arbitrary, futile exercise that only functions to salve your burning conscience for a month before you inevitably mothball your new treadmill — fair enough. For some people, it works. Either way, shouldn’t the desire to become a better person be on our daily to-do list?

Becoming a better person, translated to Catholicism, means becoming a saint. Saints love God very much and, because virtues are diffusive, that interior flame of love spreads and encompasses those around them. This is why saints also love people very much. Saints are empathetic. Their emotional intelligence keeps passions from controlling their lives, and they are able to examine an issue from multiple perspectives. They give others the benefit of the doubt, and even if they’re naïve, they don’t mind taking the risk. It’s one thing, though, to make a resolution to be better. It’s another to accomplish the goal.

St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) is here to help. Before her death as a martyr in a Nazi prison camp, she wrote a book about empathy. Her thoughts have tremendous depth and, as her own life shows, contain practical value. Here are insights I’ve gleaned from her writing.

Pay attention. This is simple, but we actually need to notice that other people exist. That’s the first baby step. Really, truly, paying attention is the ability to be totally present to another person and not needing to insert my own drama into our every interaction. One of the scenarios that Edith gives is, “I am completely filled with grief over a bereavement at the moment my friend tells me the joyful news.” How hard is it to not rain on a friend’s parade with sad news? How difficult to put anxiety aside and instead share in joy? In such a situation, paying attention is a gift we give.

Become a traveler. By this, Edith doesn’t mean literally go to another country. She means to treat people in the same way we would a new, foreign experience. Here, in this person, is a new and exciting soul with a beautiful, mysterious, unique personality.

See people, not labels. It’s easy to dismiss others if we label them as part of a larger crowd. A nameless, faceless category can be ignored with no remorse. But a person with a name? Who makes you laugh? Who has a history? Each person is special, and the key to treating them better is acknowledging that even if a person can be frustrating or wrong-headed, they should never be dismissed.

As Edith Stein shows, even in the worst of situations we can reach out and find meaningful human connection. This is a necessary step in our resolution to become happy, saintly people.

Father Rennier is parochial administrator of Epiphany of Our Lord Parish in St. Louis. A former Anglican priest, he was ordained in 2016 under a pastoral provision for the reception of Anglicans and Episcopalians into full communion with the Catholic Church. He and his wife, Amber, have six children.

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