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