Recently I was given the opportunity to speak at an event for The Institute for Christian
Psychology where I addressed maintaining healthy empathy with another. If you were unable to
attend, you can find a link to the talk under the Events tab. But if you did happen to be there or
listen online, then you can recall the point I made about just showing up and reading the room,
so to speak, regarding what the other person needs. For a moment here, I want to circle back
to that notion, as it’s typically a prominent point of discussion when I speak on Bakhtin’s theory
of empathy, and that no one pried into that too much during the Q&A portion that night.
A question that will occasionally arise for me on this matter is of the inevitable
subjectiveness of what’s being implied here. In short, Bakhtin’s goal—as the presentation
culminated with—is aesthetic in nature. That is to say, for Bakhtin’s system to have any
momentous effect, the epath must be considering the beauty and value of the other. That could
either be in regards to their overall narrative or the more metaphysical fact that they are made
in the image of God.
If it’s the former, then when that person is being met with, Bakhtin would suggest we
take a moment to see them in the context of their story, for example, the weight it has on them,
or the joys they are finding, or—even more simply—the fact that we, the empath, are about to
discover one more page of that story in the given moment that will soon be unfolding before
us. If the latter, Bakhtin urges each of us to see the other in a grander scheme. That is, each
person is their own autonomous being, bringing something [divinely] unique to the moment at
hand. This is what I was referring to when I made the comment about art. And herein is why
aesthetic appreciation is vital, and seemingly subjective to this way of empathizing.
Whether the person is being seen in the moment as a new page to an on-going story or
an incomparable river that you can never step into twice, as the saying goes, what is at hand is
something to witness, evaluate, and enjoy. This progression is important for how I proposed
healthy empathy, as it ends with the enjoying of the person, rather than ending at the second
step, the abstract evaluating and processing. Their good is the goal, not our “figuring them
So to come back full circle to the potential of this being subjective, I want to point out
the constant, the anchor that holds us from drifting into the sea of untethered humanism: the
imago dei, more commonly known as the image of God. As someone once shared with me at a
soul-care retreat, “Before there was original sin there was original blessing.” You see, before sin
entered the world, man and woman were created good and in God’s image. And despite sin,
every man and woman born since bear that image. Carrying this on, to use the Aquinas’
assessment of what this means, mankind has been given the gifts to abstract, to judge values,
and to use reason. If you spend time reading Bakhtin, it’s clear that he has a vast appreciation
of these God-given traits, as it is from this realization that he urges us to sit and appreciate.
To summarize, if we are to anchor this into something objective in our conversations
with others, whether as a counselor, a teacher, a parent, or simply a friend, we must also
remember the reality that now there is sin and brokenness. Our friends, as well as us ourselves,
too often see through the glass dimly, and need to be reminded of God’s intentions for His
creation. That is to say, we must let go of relishing in our autonomous freedom, as Satan had
us believe, but—to use a note from Kierkegaard here—instead realign our thoughts and goals
with that of God’s. Here’s the truth for healthy empathy: that person across the room from you
is a beautiful image bearer of the King and is wading through a life of pain and loss. They need
to be reminded of their value. They need to be reminded of their original blessing.
Jordan has worked in Louisville within education, ranging from dean, to teacher, to chaplain, for the past ten years, and as a local artist for the past three. He has earned both a Masters of Divinity and a Masters of Theology from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and has since published and presented works on the philosophy of the mind as well as on consciousness theory. He currently lives in here Louisville with his wife Sharla and his two kids, Ruby and Theo, and attends Sojourn East, where he serves as a lay counselor when needed.