When the bombs fell on Buckingham Palace in 1940, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother said that she was glad because it meant that she and the King could finally ‘look the East End in the eye’. Many people have laughed at this statement, believing it to be illustrative of just how out of touch the royal family is. People who had almost nothing, losing everything they owned in one night were not experiencing the same war as the privileged Windsors with their untold wealth and multiple palatial residences. If one castle gets totalled, move to another: that is not poverty.
We seem to believe that empathy can only stem from our having actually experienced something. Until the monarch has to live in a high-rise flat with no food in the fridge and no money to feed the meter, she cannot begin to understand the plight of her poorest subjects.
Empathy, though, is like faith – it shouldn’t require evidence. Nothing breaks my heart more than homelessness, though I have mercifully never been in that position myself. Surely the essence of the empathetic heart is being able to find the common point of experience. The Queen Mother was not suggesting that her domestic situation was the same as that of the Eastenders; she was saying, however, that both knew what it was to have their homes threatened and even breached. One was much larger and grander, yes, but home nonetheless.
And, just the same, when I saw our Queen sitting all by herself at the funeral of her husband, I could finally understand how a blone from Lewis and the monarch of a kingdom might have something in common.
When the time came for the mourners to file into the church on the day of my husband’s funeral, a church officer approached me and asked, ‘are you alone?’ I felt his words like a knife to my heart. Yes indeed, I thought, quite alone. My best friend, my helpmeet, my companion in life, has gone on without me, and I have to navigate this path as best I can with no hand to hold.
I don’t imagine the pain of losing a spouse is any less when you are a world leader. Perhaps, indeed, the pain is greater still for one whose life is so public. She must now find a way in which to do everything she used to do, but always conscious of the absence where Prince Philip used to be. It is likely – though by no means certain – that her reunion with him will come much more quickly than mine with Donnie. When I was first widowed, I used to envy elderly women in my position, because I thought they wouldn’t have to experience so much of life without their husbands.
Now, though, I know it makes no difference. Jesus knew he would raise Lazarus from the dead, but he still wept with the family. His tears were not merely for their pain, but for the human condition – for the fall that has brought us to a place of death. Inevitably, whether we are exalted in the land or humble, we gather at the graveside and mourn for what the great leveller has removed.
Jesus – the Queen’s Saviour and mine – was displaying empathy. He was shedding tears for mankind, for the sin that brought death into our experience. Although he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead, death would eventually claim him a second time.
Of course, the depth of Jesus’ empathy was what led him to finally surrender himself on the cross. So moved was the Lord’s heart by what we have inflicted upon ourselves, that he did not merely weep with the bereaved: he gave himself to death in our place.
Christ became man and walked this Earth. He was born into the humblest of surroundings. As a man, he had no home to call his own, no regular income, no insurance policies. The King of Kings was a vagrant.
But that isn’t what made him the most empathetic man who ever lived.
Before God sent his Son into the world, there was compassion, and there was empathy for our plight. Do we castigate God because he has never had his home destroyed, or lost his spouse? Would it be fair to tell him that he cannot understand our pain? Of course not, because he is the very model of what empathy means. If I may put it like this, he carried empathy to its ultimate conclusion.
If we are followers of Christ, then, shouldn’t empathy be part of our character? There are things I have not suffered, practices I do not approve, walks I have not had to take . . . but when I see my fellow man in their midst, where is my heart? Do I rush to judgement, to vitriol and condemnation, or do I say, ‘there but for God’s grace go I’.
Christ came alongside all manner of sin and suffering. That was empathy. And we are capable of it, it is expected of us, because he loved us first.