I Don’t Feel Your Pain

 In Culture, Faith, Fred's Blog, Fred's Blog, People, Theology, Uncategorized

“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them…”
Matthew 6:9

During a meeting last month, one of my friends quoted President Obama, “The biggest deficit that we have in our society and in the world right now is an empathy deficit.” None of us disagreed or questioned him. After all, with every horrifying situation in the world how could anyone doubt what we need is more empathy?

I would have said the same until I read Paul Bloom’s new book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion.

What do we mean by empathy? Empathy is not the same as sympathy or even understanding. To feel empathy for someone is to share their pain or joy so completely that you feel what they feel. Bloom writes, “Empathy was difficult and unpleasant – it wore people out. This is consistent with other findings suggesting that vicarious suffering not only leads to bad decision-making but also causes burnout and withdrawal…empathy is a moral train wreck.”

Really?  That sounds harsh but when we read further it begins to make sense.

First, empathy is biased. Bloom writes, “Some of these biases are superficial, based on considerations like ethnicity and affiliation.” We feel more empathy for people who have something in common with us and less for people who are strangers or live far away. While we might feel pity for the young girl facing certain death in Aleppo, we cannot begin to imagine what she feels. In fact, there is strong evidence that our response is to ignore painful situations altogether. Bloom refers to an example from the book The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker, “For many years a charity called Save the Children ran magazine ads with a heartbreaking photograph of a destitute child and the caption  ‘You can save Juan Ramos for five cents a day. Or you can turn the page.’ Most people turned the page.”

Second, empathy is like a spotlight. To be triggered, it must narrow its focus to a single individual; it cannot handle groups or large numbers of people. Bloom continues, “It does poorly in a world where there are many people in need and where the effects of one’s actions are diffuse, often delayed, and difficult to compute…Empathy is activated when you think about a specific individual – the so-called ‘identifiable victim’ effect – but its natural limits make it ineffective and impossible to scale.”

Third, empathy shuts down if we believe someone is responsible for their own suffering. For example, a 2010 study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience found that people felt less empathy toward AIDS patients infected through intravenous drug use than from a needed blood transfusion.

For me, the greater value of Bloom’s writing is not his case against empathy but his positive argument for something even better: compassion: “In contrast to empathy, compassion does not mean sharing the suffering of the other, rather, it is characterized by feelings of warmth, concern and care for the other, as well as a strong motivation to improve the other’s well being. Compassion is feeling for and not feeling with the other.”

Deep empathy consumes so much energy and focus that those who register high in empathy have more difficulty actually acting to help. Compassion leads to better feelings and kinder behavior toward others, and even better, those with high quotients of compassion are strongly motivated to take action.

Jesus never meant for us to be cold and distant. On the other hand, I’m sure he never meant for us to become so absorbed by feeling what others feel that we are consumed.  Instead, just as his heart overflowed with compassion and kindness directed toward those he met, ours can as well.

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Showing 15 comments
  • John
    Reply

    Thanks for this. Good stuff.

    • Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, John. It’s good to know you are reading!

  • Peb jackson
    Reply

    Thanks again Fred for meaty post…
    Interesting not many efforts or organizations named empathy but there is…..Compassion

    • Fred Smith
      Reply

      I thought about that as I was writing and should have probably included a link! But, I have to be neutral.

  • Pete Hutton
    Reply

    A great message. Thanks for sharing.

    • Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Pete.

  • Paul Park
    Reply

    Fred, I really appreciate the blog. Always thought-provoking.

    I hope you don’t mind me confessing that this post had me scratching my head a little. It feels like we are mincing words, and I’m not sure to what benefit. The concept of empathy is deeply biblical (as one of many examples, Hebrews 13:3 says, “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.”). And the very definition of compassion, if you break down the etymology of “compassion”, it means to “suffer with.”

    Is this a reaction to “liberal-speak”? The term seems to be used extensively by both camps. Is the fear that empathy will lead to irrational decision-making? There’s already a well-coined phrase of “compassion fatigue” (Paul Bloom’s neuroscience studies notwithstanding), so the phenomenon is not exclusive to exercising empathy.

    But in the end, I like what our mutual friend, Rob, says — may our giving (whether of money, time, sometimes our tears) reflect both a heartbeat and a brainwave. Maybe its messier, maybe it can be emotionally draining, but I’m glad for those who have sat on the floor and mourned with me in my “winters” rather than offer me some tangible help. It’s a huge part of what got me through. I’m not sure I would want to discourage it.

    • Fred Smith
      Reply

      Paul – I probably wrestled with this one blog more than any in the last several years. At first, I thought he was probably splitting hairs or making a false and unhelpful distinction. However, as I kept reading I realized how impossible it is to fully empathize (what he calls emotional empathy which is deeper than cognitive empathy) with anyone – in joy or sorrow. We simply cannot be inside their skin, their experiences, emotional makeup and predispositions. We might get close but we really cannot get much beyond imagining what it must be like to feel what they are feeling. The energy and focus required to do that with just one person would be, I think, overwhelming and still fall short of full empathy. I had to leave out his distinction of empathy as understanding – and that is what he labels “cognitive empathy.” It’s important to be able to “read” people and understand them. Otherwise, we would go through life either offending or misunderstanding everyone we meet. Cognitive empathy is extremely valuable and possible. However, emotional empathy or literally climbing in their skin with them is not only unlikely but probably not even desirable. That is why I like the way he uses compassion to distinguish it from empathy. Compassion carries with it the desire to not only feel kindly toward another person but to act on that kindliness. “Faith without works is dead” comes to mind. Empathy is all about striving for that emotional equivalent of a Vulcan mind-lock but compassion does not seek to identify as much as to reach out. Compassion does allow for “suffering with” but it does not stop there. It seeks to either relieve the sorrow or to share and enhance the joy of the other person. (He does make a case that it is harder to feel compassion for someone’s good fortune as there are so many obstacles – like envy – that get in the way. I’ll leave that for another discussion. So, all that to say it’s probably not worth a book to make that distinction but it was worth a blog!

    • Fred Smith
      Reply

      Paul – I had one more thought. The book does not really explore the side of compassion that Henri Nouwen calls “the ministry of presence” that does not require doing anything – just being present. Like you perhaps that has been the ministry of empathetic and compassionate people in my life.

  • Margaret Moffett
    Reply

    As always, Fred, your blog makes me stop and evaluate. Thanks for doing that. This one was a surprise because I guess I hadn’t paid much attention before to the definitions of empathy and compassion. I guess Compassion International is aptly named. They press into action to help those in need. Merry Christmas to you and all the family.

    • Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Margaret. Yes, as someone else pointed out there is no Empathy International. Maybe they would never get any work done!

  • Greg
    Reply

    Fred, Thought provoking! I think it caused me to possibly move beyond the constraints of the book author. Sometimes, I think we can struggle to be empathetic with an individual, group or movement for moral, philosophical or other reasons, but it is a good reminder that we are still called to be compassionate. I have seen where people sometimes get so empathetic that they join into something that has real negatives, and can even become part of the problem rather than the solution. I may or may not be empathtic or understand, or even agree with someone, but compassion can still flow. Still sorting that out, but thanks for giving me new lenses to see things through.

    • Fred Smith
      Reply

      I am with you. I may not understand how another feels or get remotely close to feeling what they feel but I can choose compassion.

  • Paul Olson
    Reply

    Thanks, Fred, for this provocative blog. It’s been a privilege to teach an Advent series in our church over the past few years. This year’s Joy lesson looked through two lenses – God’s and others’. Some years ago, a friend of mine shared a devotional of the definition of Joy. Joy is ‘relaxing justice and showing mercy.’ That is God’s lens on Joy as Micah 6:8 points out. This understanding of Joy trumps our meager understanding of Empathy – God’s intent for how we treat our fellow man is to relax justice and show mercy and in doing so we/they experience joyful empathy. Using God’s view of how we show empathy for others ought to prevent us from being presumptuous or pejorative – neither are gracious or helpful as pointed out in Proverbs 14:10. Your essay drives home the importance of not glibly or overbearingly demonstrating empathy to others. Thanks.

    • Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Paul. As a Southern Baptist the celebration of Advent is, until recently, not widely observed. We are more enthusiastic about Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong! However, the more I read about waiting the more I realise what we are missing. I’ve been teaching on Joshua and how many times the people are told to wait when common sense would have recommended or even demanded immediate action. I have begun to appreciate the importance of waiting.

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