Charles Williams on Empathy

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Charles Williams, close friend of (and influence on) CS Lewis once said:

“If a man seems to himself to endure the horrors of shipwreck, though he walks on dry land and breathes clear air, the business of his friend is more likely to be to accept those horrors, as he feels them, carrying the burden, than to explain that the burden cannot, as a matter of fact, exist.” – Descent Into Hell, Chapter 5

Empathy sometimes requires correcting a loved one’s delusion. But sometimes it requires not correcting someone’s delusion.

This kind of empathy is required rather often in parenting. Children need to be believed, and comforted within their incorrect belief, as often as they need to be taught the correct belief. If my son thinks there is a monster in the closet, I don’t tell him “There’s no such thing as monsters;” I go in the closet with a bat and dramatically kill the beast.

This kind of empathy is sometimes required with parents, friends, clients, students.

If an atheist tells me that he feels as if god is cruel, harsh, uncaring, my first response is to help him carry the burden of living in a world with such a god.

Believe first, affirm and comfort first, then correct (later), if and when it’s appropriate.