The nature of empathy interests me. Part of it is my psychological background and concern for the well-being of communities. Part of it is growing up with an older brother who probably had a mild case of Asperger’s, which entails a difficulty with empathy and probably contributed to his being bullied and suicide. Part of it roots back in, looking back, was an overwhelming sense of sensitivity empathy I had for people that were being picked on, that in middle school and high school made me look weak and someone to pick on and laugh at when I expressed it; in that environment, you learn to eventually cover over your feelings and I was pushed towards something of a rational automaton that didn’t know how to engage with people well on a
Then, there is the issue that empathy has become a
In many circles, it is treated as the “holy grail” of relationships and society. If we all had a little bit more empathy, society would be a bit better. We look to the Holocaust where the dehumanizing of people entailed an absence of empathy. And we all want empathy; we all want an ear sympathetic to our plights. As a consequence, in Christian circles, we have, like the surrounding society, come to link the notion of love to a sense of empathy.
But I am going to say something here that is controversial, but not without merit. Empathy is not itself love. Love often times entails empathy, but they are not the same. Empathy is a cognitive skill and emotional response to the perceived emotions of another person. Love is a way of being concerned about another person and their well-being. Love entails an action
Then, there is the renowned psychologist Paul Bloom who has written against the moral bubble that is empathy in his book Against Empathy. He makes the argument that empathy can lead us to some unhelpful actions and dark paths.
If you observe how people empathize, we are not programmed to naturally empathize with everyone, but only those people we share some sense of belonging and identification with. We don’t empathize with our enemies. In some sense, we might say that empathy is responsible for the radicalization of Western politics into tribal identities, where people empathize with members of their clan and have much less empathy outside of the clan. In short, I would suggest that the selective and biased way we decide who we empathize with (even if we are unaware of how selective we can be) leads to increasing deficits of listening and understanding between groups of people. Empathizing with some people, paradoxically, empathize less with other people. Much of the time, empathy is a zero-sum game. This selectivity of empathy can
This is not to mention the mental and emotional exhaustion that can occur in the helping professions. As pastors, we are often lead into the deep experience of other people’s pain. Counselors and therapists have the same dynamic in place. When you consistently have empathy for others in terrible situations, you begin to emotionally burn out yourself. We know this as secondary trauma. We are not built to continuously feel what other people feel.
Then, there are the dark sides of empathy. Empathy can be manipulatively marshaled by others, where we become accessible and controllable to other people. We empathize with them, believing
Then, on the flip side, manipulative people often have a sense of cognitive empathy, which makes them good at knowing how people will feel and respond to their attempts at manipulation. Thus, empathy doesn’t
In the end, empathy is an emotional response pattern and a cognitive skill, but it isn’t love in and of itself. Love is a deep motivation that can become effectively realized through empathy, but love is deeper than that. Mere empathy without action
God did not simply empathize with human suffering; He came in the flesh, to live and engage with human suffering. It is this capacity that makes Jesus an effective high priest who is able to empathize, but He is a high priest who acts, not simply hears and understands sympathetically.