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Virtue: Empathy

22nd September 2021

HOM: Listening with understanding and empathy


“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

(Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird)


‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ used to be a regular text for GCSE and I remember my sons studying it when they were at school. I also remember watching with them, the brilliant film version of the novel, starring Gregory Peck. It is a story of justice and injustice which resonates strongly with young people and you root for the protagonists.

Atticus Finch is a lawyer and resident of the fictional Maycomb County, Alabama and the father of Jeremy “Jem” Finch and Jean Louise “Scout” Finch. He represents the African-American man Tom Robinson in his trial where he is wrongly charged with the rape of Mayella Ewell. Harper Lee based the character on her own father and it explores prejudice and racial tension.

In the novel, Atticus Finch utters the words of the above quotation  as he tries to teach his young daughter, Scout, how better to understand people’s inner motives and get along with them better as a result of it. To really understand a person and know their ways, one has to distance themselves from their own habitual point of view, seek to get inside another person’s mind and to learn their pattern of thinking and the reasons why they do the things they do.

Atticus is well known for his compassion and sympathy for people, even the ones he doesn’t like. In this situation he tries to persuade his daughter not to be angry with Miss Caroline, her school teacher, for her strange behaviour at school. He explains that this behaviour probably wasn’t intentional, because the teacher might just have tried to do the best she can do in the circumstances known to her.

This is important advice for any child. Learning it offers both a new and useful perspective and an important moral lesson, which enables Scout to build her empathy and improve as a person.

And so this week our focus is on empathy as a virtue. It is a quality that enables us to see the world through different eyes and to set aside simple judgement of others. To show empathy is to identify with another’s feelings. It is to emotionally put yourself in the place of another.

Once we understand more how another person feels, we can show empathy by acknowledging the emotion. We can say things like “I can see that you are really bothered by this” or “I can understand why you are upset”. Many times the simple act of showing empathy is just as meaningful to the person hurting as having a solution to their problem. We can also show empathy through a simple sign of affection such as hug or a supportive hand on the shoulder.

Empathy is certainly something we could use more of in today’s society. Our human ability to empathize is often the first step on the road to loving and serving each other with greater compassion. When we lack empathy we may be quick to judge and act with prejudice. When we develop empathy we consider things from another point of view, leading to greater understanding, and in a way that we would wish to be understood too.

Christine Crossley