Empathy is a good thing, right?
I’d say most people tend to think so. Things like mirror neurons, morality, doing the right thing, understanding, sharing peoples feelings, and other good stuff like that all come to mind at the utterance of the word “empathy.”
I also think most people assume Jesus was a big fan of empathy. But I’d like to challenge that idea.
“Hold it right there!” you might say. “We’ve got tons of stories of Jesus being sensitive to peoples feelings. What about all that unconditional love stuff?”
Here I would have to confess that yes, on some level, at certain times in Scripture, Jesus seems to exhibit what we 21st century people would recognize as “empathy,” i.e. what philosophers like David Hume and Adam Smith would call the ability to experience the world as others do (or at least as we think they do). To empathize with someone is to put yourself in her shoes, to feel her pain.
For instance, in Luke 7:11-16 we find Jesus feeling bad for a widow who was about to bury her son. The text reads:
“His heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.” (Luke 7:13)
Isn’t this empathy? Seems like it.
But before we move on consider this: although Scripture does seem to refer indirectly to it (as in the verse above), the 100 year old word “empathy,” first coined in 1909 by psychologist Edward Titchener, appears nowhere in the Bible.
Empathy Ain’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be
I’ve been reading about some fascinating research being done recently in cognitive science, specifically in the areas of emotion and moral psychology. In particular, Yale professor of psychology, Paul Bloom, has been writing some neat stuff.
Bloom thinks it’s a mistake to just assume the benefits of empathy are so obvious that they require no justification. Interestingly, Bloom, and others like Philosopher Jesse Prinz, feel empathy can actually be dangerous when it comes to moral decision making.
Bloom sums up his argument well in an article he wrote recently:
“Empathy is biased; we are more prone to feel empathy for attractive people and for those who look like us or share our ethnic or national background. And empathy is narrow; it connects us to particular individuals, real or imagined, but is insensitive to numerical differences and statistical data. As Mother Teresa put it, ‘If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.’ Laboratory studies find that we really do care more about the one than about the mass, so long as we have personal information about the one.”
In light of these features, our public decisions will be fairer and more moral once we put empathy aside. Our policies are improved when we appreciate that a hundred deaths are worse than one, even if we know the name of the one, and when we acknowledge that the life of someone in a faraway country is worth as much as the life of a neighbor, even if our emotions pull us in a different direction.”
Strong but important words against empathy. I personally am coming to be in close concurrence with Bloom and Prinz when they point out that empathy is dyadic. In other words, empathy is great for bonding and identifying with a person who looks like you and is in the same tribe as you, but don’t count on it kicking in when dealing with something like global poverty, which deals with masses of people in great jeopardy.
In order to value all of life, as opposed to only those who look like us or who we know personally, we need to develop compassion.
Empathy vs. Compassion
Most people use empathy and compassion synonymously, but exploring the differences is definitely worth it. Bloom illustrates:
“Imagine that the child of a close friend has drowned. A highly empathetic response would be to feel what your friend feels, to experience, as much as you can, the terrible sorrow and pain. In contrast, compassion involves concern and love for your friend, and the desire and motivation to help, but it need not involve mirroring your friend’s anguish.”
Bloom’s point is that, contrary to popular belief, empathetic distress is not necessary for helping. Instead, someone who is compassionate might “value others’ lives in the abstract, and, recognizing the misery caused by starvation, be motivated to act accordingly.” In other words, Bloom seems correct when he says “compassionate helping is good for you and for others. But empathetic distress is destructive of the individual in the long run.”
That last part seems really important.
We should probably pay close attention to the idea that empathy can be destructive. Perhaps unconventionally for a social scientist (but which I applaud), Bloom cites Buddhist teaching in his research. Particularly, Bloom notes that Buddhists make distinctions between “sentimental compassion,” which corresponds to empathy, and “great compassion,” which involves love for others without empathetic attachment or distress. Sentimental compassion is to be avoided by followers of Buddhism because it can lead to “emotional exhaustion” and turn into apathy. In the end, this does no one any bit of good.
I for one appreciate Bloom’s therapeutic point of view here. In his writings he gives some great examples of how a less emotionally immeshed, big picture type of active compassion can be preferred over empathy. He writes:
“…an older relative of mine who has cancer is going back and forth to hospitals and rehabilitation centers. I’ve watched him interact with doctors and learned what he thinks of them. He values doctors who take the time to listen to him and develop an understanding of his situation; he benefits from this sort of cognitive empathy. But emotional empathy is more complicated. He gets the most from doctors who don’t feel as he does, who are calm when he is anxious, confident when he is uncertain. And he particularly appreciates certain virtues that have little directly to do with empathy, virtues such as competence, honesty, professionalism, and respect.”
In his article, Bloom refers to former medical actor, Leslie Jamison, who also writes about her encounters with doctors in her collection of essays, The Empathy Exams, where she wonders how we can feel another’s pain, especially when pain can be assumed, distorted, or performed. In the book she writes about one encounter with a doctor she was grateful for:
“I didn’t need him to be my mother—even for a day—I only needed him to know what he was doing…His calmness didn’t make me feel abandoned, it made me feel secure I needed to look at him and see the opposite of my fear, not its echo.”
To summate, empathy could be thought of as the capacity to experience the suffering of others, while compassion can be thought of as the ability to feel and respond to the suffering of others with feelings of warmth and care.
Jesus the All Compassionate One
So was Jesus empathetic? Again, on some basic level, definitely. But the important words there are “basic level.”
For instance, the research Bloom and others have been doing doesn’t debunk prior claims that babies are born feeling empathy for others and even have a baseline sense of morality (they’re not a blank slates, sorry Freudians). But as we grow and mature we hopefully become smarter and more sophisticated, making our worlds more complex in the process. In essence then, one could think about compassion as a more complex and developed form of empathy. This is what I think Jesus exemplifies more often than not in the biblical accounts, and this is why I would venture to guess that he, along with Bloom and Prinz, might be a little hard on those who would stay stuck strictly in an empathic mode.
Sure, Jesus felt the feelings of others (empathy) like we all do, but rest assured, his empathy wasn’t narrow and biased. Jesus responded to the suffering of others like no one else ever had or perhaps ever could. Further, there’s been enough theology and christology written to sink a boat which points out just how good Jesus was at reaching across the cultural, ethnic and socio-political boundaries of his day, all while admonishing those who didn’t follow his lead. Perhaps no other story in the Bible makes this point more clear than the one found in Matthew, where Jesus basically instructs his followers to move beyond empathy toward an all encompassing global compassion:
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48)
Incidentally, when we view “Jesus the Healer” in light of what Bloom says above about the type of compassion or “cognitive empathy” which doctors or therapists show toward their patients, we do see “virtues that have little directly to do with empathy, virtues such as competence, honesty, professionalism, and respect”:
“Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him, saying, “I am willing; be cleansed.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.” (Matthew 8:3)
“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9:36)
“When evening came, they brought to Him many who were demon-possessed; and He cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were ill.” (Matthew 8:16-17)
“When He went ashore, He saw a large crowd, and felt compassion for them and healed their sick.” (Matthew 14:14)
“Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes; and immediately they regained their sight and followed Him.” (Matthew 18:11-13)
I could go on but the connections seems obvious. In just those few verses above, we see Jesus behaving exactly the way Bloom would predict a highly advanced, mature, and compassionate person might behave. Jesus is calm, competent and caring, he’s honest and he does not let empathetic distress immobilize him.
He does good.
My we all have compassion and learn to do the same.