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Beyond empathy

Merely feeling someone’s pain can lead to ‘help’ that does harm

Beyond empathy

Aid for Harvey victims in Orange, Texas (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

On May 22, 2011, a multiple-vortex EF5 tornado ripped up Joplin, Mo., leaving 149 corpses and a city of rubble in its wake. The following July, I spent three days there as a volunteer. I wasn’t sure what one woman could do without muscle or power tools, and honestly it didn’t seem like much. The first day I picked up trash on a couple of city streets, but the next two days I confronted piles of used clothing, canned goods, and stuffed toys to pick through. It felt like one of those fairy tales where the heroine has one night to sort a pile of rice and barley into separate bins.

Those piles of goods were the fruit of empathy from fellow Americans who had not suffered the terrible destruction but felt for those who had. Since many of us don’t have the funds to write big checks, we raid our pantries and closets for stuff, which piles up in parking lots and drains resources—mainly volunteers who might have been more usefully employed clearing away rubble. The canned goods sent to Joplin ended up in church food banks, but the clothing and toys, for all I know, might still be stored away in warehouses. 

 “Canned goods and teddy bears” is a typical response to disaster, says psychologist Paul Bloom. It may be worse than useless. His latest book, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, examines an emotion that drives the political bandwagon today. 

Ever since Bill Clinton “felt our pain,” empathy has been a selling point for public figures—even Supreme Court justices, who are supposed to judge, not feel. The ability to cry with a Gold Star mom or hug a tornado victim always sends approval ratings up. Media commentators complained about President Trump’s apparent lack of empathy when he visited the flooded plains of coastal Texas: They saw no personal touch in POTUS—he acted as if it was just a job.

Empathy can be an admirable emotion, but it’s a lousy policy guide. Sometimes even a lousy moral guide.

It was a job. Showing up, dispatching resources, shaking hands, consulting with the governor and mayor—it all fits the job title of an executive. He can’t heal with his touch, but he can set gears in motion and clear obstacles. From all accounts, the president did just that, without shedding a single tear. I’m guessing the victims didn’t care if he cried, as long as they got some help.

Empathy can be an admirable emotion, but it’s a lousy policy guide. Sometimes even a lousy moral guide. Empathy by nature takes the short view, overlooks long-term consequences, and can be easily manipulated. In order to truly help, one must keep at least one foot on the bank, not plunge into roiling waters with the drowning man so that both go down together. Any ER nurse or first responder will tell you how important it is to maintain a distance from raw agony: to keep your head, stifle your feelings, and do what needs to be done. Any long-term trauma counselor knows when it’s time to pass the Kleenex, but if she cries, she cries at home.

Even in the home, it’s a weak parent who can’t say “No” to a child’s deeply felt but unhealthy desires, even when the parent remembers what it felt like to be a child. An empathy that folds in the face of juvenile misery can harm a child’s long-term happiness.

Empathy can harm; that’s Paul Bloom’s point. But even if we see the harm in government or the professions, what does it mean for us who are told to “bear one another’s burdens”? Didn’t Jesus Himself sympathize with us in our weaknesses? He did, and he bore, but empathy was not His driving force. Otherwise He would have stayed on earth forever, healing our temporal hurts while sin kept us in eternal misery. Rather than hugging our immediate distress, He saw our ultimate need, and did what had to be done. 

As for us: When we’re on our way to help, emotion can get us on the road. But let reason drive, and truth be our guide.


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  • Dick Friedrich
    Posted: Wed, 09/06/2017 07:46 am

    So true. Love and empathy are not the same thing even though we often confuse them in our times to our detriment.

  • Yokefellow
    Posted: Wed, 09/06/2017 09:41 am

    May God bless you richly for sharing these 23 words at the end or your article: "When we're on our way to help emotion can get us on the road.  But let reason drive, and truth be our guide."  They are incredibly concise and powerful.  May we also have a paradigm for interpreting truth that has integrity or else our reason and guide will cause us to go off the road and crash.  A paradigm of 5 principles:

    1  The Word of God is trustworthy, and is from and about Him.  

    2  The central subject of the bible is Jesus Christ.  

    3  Seek to understand the biblical language to find if words have a unique meaning, and correctly apply that meaning within the context they are used.

    4  Scripture is used to interpret scripture and difficult verses must be interpreted in light of the clear verses on the same subject.

    5  Interpret scripture in light of the fact that God's intention for humankind is best understood within Genesis 1-2, prior to original sin and the fall.


  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Sat, 09/09/2017 01:32 pm

    Jesus never asked people who came to Him how they felt.  He sometimes asked what they wanted.  He always gave them what they needed.  We Christ-followers should strive to do the same.