Empathy is not being a bystander

The best place to learn empathy is from listening to people who suffer. In the book Franz Rosenzweig: His Life and Thought by Nahum Glatzer, we can listen in to the thoughts of a philosopher lying paralyzed, in his last years:

“I read, carry on business, pull strings, and, all in all, enjoy life, and besides I have something looming in the background for the sake of which I am almost tempted to call this period, in spite of everything, the richest of my life – which has not been lacking in such periods. This might strike the bystander as funny, and even during the war I myself had only weak and rare intimations of it, but now it is simply true: dying is even more beautiful than living.” (p. 115)

“I am bothered by your excess of pity rather than by the technical difficulties of carrying on a conversation. I always feel like calling out, “You are a parson, after all.” Parsons and doctors shouldn’t take a sentimental view of death; they are the companions of the dying man, not mere bystanders. Sentimentality is proper for the bystanders. The dying themselves are not sentimental. And the bystanders are the less so the less they are mere bystanders. I don’t consider myself at all a “poor invalid”; I wouldn’t change places with anyone. Not with you – which doesn’t mean very much, since nobody readily exchanges his identity – but not either with my own self of a year ago. And there are few periods of my life which I would be sorrier to lose than the past ten months.” (p. 122)

“The words pain and suffering which you use seem quite odd to me. A condition into which one has slithered gradually, and consequently got used to, is not suffering but simply a – condition. A condition that leaves room for joy and suffering like any other. A Homeric god might see human life only in terms of pain and suffering. This notion is as false as yours. For instance, I suffer at night if my ear itches and I can’t scratch it; but I have only to wait a while and it passes of itself. On such occasions I sometimes become conscious of the abnormality of my condition, which for days at a time I forget. During sleepless nights I often review my life; then the last few years are set off from the rest only as one epoch is set off from another. What must appear suffering when seen from the outside, is actually only a sum of great difficulties that have to be overcome…” (p. 142)

What are your thoughts about Rosenzweig’s reaction to the person who was visiting him? What does it mean in your experience of visiting someone who is ill or helping someone in physical, emotional or spiritual pain to not be a bystander?

Batya Yaniger

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