The True Importance of Empathy

He touched her hand and the fever left her, and she got up and began to wait on him. Matthew 8:15


Along with many other dictionaries, The Oxford English Dictionary takes more space to define the word touch than any other word. Its vast gamut of meanings can hardly be compressed into a single dictionary definition. Without touch you lose one of the most important of all the five senses.


The famed scientist Maximilian von Frey mapped the nervous system of your body as thoroughly as Rand McNally mapped the world. This brilliant scientist outlined the complex nervous system of the human body, which, of course, makes it possible for you to feel the slightest tickle on the back of your neck or sense the fly that inadvertently lands on your nose as you strive to go to sleep at night.


Paul Brand, the famed orthopedic surgeon, known for his advancements in treating leprosy, contends that a sense of touch is his most precious diagnostic skill. The Bible says that man is fearfully and wonderfully made, but just how marvelous is the complex human body is something we seldom consider. When God designed the human body, He must have given special attention to the surface of our skin, and not the kind of attention a woman gives to it as she peers in the mirror examining her wrinkles and complexion. The nervous system attaches its tendrils to the surface of your skin in such a way that portions of your body are super-sensitive to touch while other surfaces are able to withstand a good deal of punishment without causing you discomfort.


When I was in Ifugao country, in the northern part of the Philippines, I observed the former headhunters who wore only a G-string, whose hinder parts are as tough and leathery as the sole of your foot was when you were a barefoot youngster. Dr. Maximilian von Frey determined that the threshold of touch varies greatly. For example, it takes a weight of 250 milligrams per square millimeter for you to feel something on the sole of your foot. The back of your forearm, however, senses a weight of 33 milligrams of pressure, the back of your hand, 12 milligrams.


The most sensitive parts of your body’s surface are your fingertips and your tongue. But get a speck of dust in your eye and you quickly learn what sensitivity is. The cornea of your eye begins to yell and scream, if just two-tenths of a milligram of pressure is applied, and when you have a speck of sawdust in your eye as I did, your whole body literally hurts.


It was not by chance that the Apostle Paul likened the church and its various members to the human body. Writing to the Corinthians, Paul uses the analogy of the human body, pointing out that our parts and functions may differ, yet we are still vitally connected, flesh and bone of the same body. If this is true, and it is, I’m wondering what it would take for us to learn to exercise the same sensitivity towards each other that the nervous system and the sensitivity of our skin afford. Take time to discover the phrase “one another” in relationship to each other, and you will begin to fathom our responsibility to each other as part of the body of Christ. You will hurt with someone else and feel what he or she feels.


A final thought: Sensitivity can be diminished through abrasion and friction. Touch the calluses on your hand or foot, and see how little sensitivity there is. So is it in our relationships with each other – which, then, behooves us to learn to feel what the other feels. And, to care.


Resource reading: Matthew 8:1-17.