Empathy – In Living Color

[image credit: Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, 1937. Marina Amaral marinamaral.com]

In a recent Atlas Obscura feature, Gray Chapman showcases the work of several artists who add color to black and white photos. One artist explains that it’s easy to see “black-and-white images as ‘sort of alien’ in how they feel like relics from a bygone era. In grayscale, a historical photograph can feel trapped under museum glass. When color is added, Madsen says, everything changes.”

What is it that changes? He continues,

“It throws its subjects’ humanity into high relief and forces us to see historical events as things that happened in real life to real people, not events that unfolded in the chapters of a history textbook. ‘Suddenly, it’s right there in front of you,’ Madsen says. ‘You can almost feel it.’”

I’ve always had a hard time explaining empathy, but one way to describe it is that you add color to what is black and white to you. When a married couple minimizes each other’s pains, or hurries past them, it’s as though the other person’s concerns are under the museum glass.

But how can you put another person’s humanity, as Madsen says, into high relief, when just don’t feel it?

Loving Imagination

Empathy is a kind of creativity. And sure, some people seem to be more naturally creative than others. But to be human is to have creative capacity, a capacity to imagine. A color photo of the migrant mother or of MLK brings you close to it all. You can imagine that they’re all real people, with real lives, with real hopes, and with real hurts.

I think of this kind of imagination when I think of Jesus’s command to love your neighbor as yourself. It requires imagination to dream up how you’d like to be treated if you were that neighbor.

In this way imagination is a virtue, something that can be learned, practiced, and lived.

How to start

In the right place and time–and without asking the other person to do all the work–sometimes we can get a little help:

What was that like for you when I walked out of the room during our argument?

How did my workaholism affect you? I feel like I know it hurt you, but I’m not sure I get it.

Questions like these can have great healing power–in large part because they are humble (James 4:6).

An artist retouching old photos may actually do a lot of good in helping us to see the humanity of others. Yet we see almost none of the artist. Madsen’s or Amaral’s  fingerprints and style markers are there, of course, but they showcases their subjects.

Similarly, married love is not wholly self-effacing, but it has a similar humility, creating something beautiful in its empathetic care without stealing the show. In this way our love, too, models that of the great Artist, who humbled himself and came in the form of a servant. His way to glory was to grant dignity and care, to show the humanity of the blind beggar and leper and adultress in high relief, and to show the love of God reaching them, giving them life and color like never before.

“Empathy” hardly captures it. “Surely He has born our griefs, and carried our sorrows” (Isa. 53:4).

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