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The Virtue Of Empathy

January 6, 2021 Frontpage No Comments


Edith Stein (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) began writing her doctoral dissertation, The Problem of Empathy, shortly after spending a year as a nurse in the service of the Red Cross. In her capacity as a nurse she learned how we can know the inner experiences of others. Her dissertation, which she ably defended, was a compelling retort to the isolated individualism and skepticism that prevailed in her time.
For Dr. Stein, her personal life and her philosophy were profoundly intertwined. Her empathy for others ultimately was the consequence of God’s empathy for her. Empathy is a profoundly human virtue, yet it has implications of the Divine.
The world, unfortunately, continues to be deficient in empathy. We are often strangers to each other. Consequently, we tend to put people in categories. This often means that we sell them short. If there were more empathy in the world, more understanding of who people really are in their being, there would be less injustice.
Edith Stein’s scholarly work, though not easy reading, offers a needed antidote to a world suffering from the alienation that goes with mutual misunderstanding. It also represents a corrective for the all-too-common tendency to underestimate the abilities of people who are “handicapped.” The greatest handicap, however, is not to have empathy.
The capacity for empathy is illustrated in a most remarkable way by a young Japanese musician by the name of Nobuyuki Tsujii. He was born on September 13, 1988 in Tokyo with a developmental disorder of the eyes called microphthalmia that left him completely blind.
His musical ability was noticed by his empathic mother when he was but two years of age. Because of his perfect pitch, he could instantly repeat whatever notes and chords he heard. At the age of seven he won first prize at the All Japan Music of Blind Students by the Helen Keller Association. At ten he played with an orchestra and was soon performing overseas in the United States, France, and Russia.
At seventeen he received the Critics’ Award at the 15th International Frederic Chopin Piano Competition held in Warsaw, Poland. In 2009 he tied for the gold medal in the prestigious Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, an accomplishment that skyrocketed him to international fame.
Nobuyuki’s performances have elicited tears, but also high praise from distinguished musicians. Menahem Pressler, for example, one of the Cliburn judges and an eminent pianist in his own right, has said, “I have the utmost admiration for Nobuyuki Tsujii. God has taken his eyes, but given him the physical endowment and mental endowment to encompass the greatest works of piano.
“For him to play the Chopin concerto with such sweetness, gentleness, and sincerity — it’s deeply touching. I had to keep from crying when I left the room.”
For renowned pianist/conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy, “Nobuyuki Tsujii is one of my favorite young pianists. He possesses a rare combination of excellent pianism and genuinely expressive musicianship. It is always a great pleasure to work with him and I wish him a future of many wonderful concerts.”
Van Cliburn told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that Nobuyuki is “absolutely miraculous” and that “his performance had the power of a healing service. It was truly divine.”
Nobuyuki visited the region in Japan that suffered the devastating aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Though unable to see the effects of this natural disaster, he nonetheless experienced a special empathy for its victims. As a result, he composed Elegy for the Victims of the Tsunami of March 11, 2011 in Japan. He played this piece, a tender and moving composition, at Carnegie Hall. During the performance, he burst into tears.
One can add his name to the 19 million viewers who have watched and listened to “Pianist in tears!!! Most moving piano performance” on YouTube. Here is empathy at its zenith point.
It is most extraordinary that any human being can hear and then accurately replicate complex piano works of such titans as Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, and Chopin. Nobuyuki does have a team of assistants who help him. He will listen to the right hand alone on tape and then the left hand. It may take him up to a month to learn, memorize, and execute a sonata or concerto. Nonetheless, there seems to be no piece that is too difficult for him to master. His patience appears to be as formidable as his musicianship.
A blind person exhibiting empathy for the composer’s intentions, for the execution, and for the audience is a tribute not only to Nobuyuki Tsujii, but to all human beings. The potential that resides in the human breast, severe handicaps notwithstanding, is extraordinary.
It is a great lesson to those who are easily discouraged. On the popular scene we find other successful blind musicians, notably Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, George Shearing, Jose Feliciano, and Art Tatum. In the classical world there are many.
Maria Theresia von Paradis was a blind composer of beautiful music and a student of Mozart. Joaquin Rodrigo was both a virtuoso pianist and a great composer. Frederick Delius composed enchanting music by humming it to an associate. Edward Kowalik has had an exceptional career as a blind concert pianist.
Most of us are familiar with the success of Andrea Bocelli. It may also be worth mentioning that Ludwig von Beethoven, Bedrich Smetana, Gabriel Faure, and Ralph Vaughan Williams, all exceptional composers, were deaf.
Being handicapped does not prevent a person from having empathy for others. Sadly, people without discernible handicaps often lack empathy.
Nobuyuki Tsujii is an inspiration. He teaches us something about the boundless potentialities that exist within the human being. We may not be musicians or artists, but we can cultivate empathy for others and witness the fine results that will emerge. At the same time, empathy will teach us something of ourselves, a point that Edith Stein stressed in her thesis on empathy.

  • + + (Dr. Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow with Human Life International. His latest book on is The War Against Civility.)
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