Empathy vs Compassion

empathy noun. Psych. The power of identifying oneself mentally with (and fully comprehending) a person or object of contemplation. (Oxford)

I was 15 when this word was first being introduced to the population of North America. It was touted as the best way to relate to the sufferings of others. I didn’t buy it then; I still don’t. Nevertheless, the power of popular opinion, directed by the psychologically aware, has overcome all doubts and empathy is now the measure of whether one is a decent human being.

Let’s consider how that might have played out in the parable Jesus told in chapter 10 of the gospel of Luke. Here was a man who had been robbed and beaten and left lying by the side of the road. If the priest and Levite had been empathetic, wouldn’t they have lain down beside him and moaned and whimpered as they imagined how it felt to have those bleeding wounds all over his body. Does anyone think the injured man would have been comforted by their empathy?

As it happened, the priest and the Levite were more concerned for their own safety and hurried on by. The Samaritan had compassion, he did what he could to help..

The point that Jesus made was that we should be like that Samaritan, we should react in a compassionate way when we see someone in distress. Compassion may be an old-fashioned word, but it has never lost its usefulness. I don’t believe empathy ever was a useful word.

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