Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Unmoved by empathy

Empathy was foisted upon us 60 years ago as a more egalitarian substitute for sympathy. I suppose I’ve always had an analytical mind, sometimes that’s just an excuse for inaction. But I never believed this new word offered anything useful.

I have been part of a small minority. The majority has come to believe that what the world needs is more empathy. In recent years this has even crept into Christian thinking and Christian literature.

Empathy is the idea that we need to feel the pain and pleasure of others. But how does it help someone to tell him “I feel your pain”? How does it help me to be able to make myself feel the pain that others are going through?

Paul Bloom, a New York psychologist and researcher at Yale University, believes that empathy is a self-centred emotion and does more harm than good. In 2016 he published Against Empathy*, in which he argues that compassion is a far healthier and more useful response to the pain and suffering of others.

To put it as simply as possible, Bloom argues that when I feel empathy for your suffering it makes me feel very bad, but does not move me to do anything to help you. Compassion, on the other hand, causes me to do something to help you, rather than trying to analyse my own feelings. Bloom says that empathy can cause us to become overloaded with painful feelings and separate us from the ones who are suffering.

Compassion is a word that we often encounter in the Bible. Jesus demonstrated compassion for all those in sorrow and distress. In the parable of the good Samaritan, the priest and the Levite may well have felt empathy for the poor man lying by the side of the road. But contact with blood, or with someone who was possibly dead, would have rendered them unclean for service in the temple. So they avoided looking too closely at the injured man. The Samaritan was moved by compassion and went ahead and did what he was able to do to help the man. Jesus closed the parable by telling the Pharisee “Go and do thou likewise.”

That message is meant for all of us. Let’s discard this newfangled empathy which leads to a preoccupation with our own feelings. May we rather allow ourselves to be moved to action by compassion.

Against Empathy: The case for rational compassion, by Paul Bloom, © 2016, published by The Bodley Head, London

One response to “Unmoved by empathy

  1. Wesley Penner July 13, 2020 at 00:39

    I remember hearing of someone who had recently lost a loved one. Many people had come to that person and said, “I feel for you.” Then one had come and said, “I am praying for you.” According to the bereaved one’s testimony that one expression of compassion was worth more than all the “I feel for you’s” that he had received.

I'd love to hear what you think about this. Please leave a comment.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: