Thursday, December 08, 2022

Choking On Our Empathy

“I know exactly how you feel.”

How many times have your heard that line, or a line like it, when you were expressing some personal sorrow or woe to another?

And was there ever a doubt in your mind that when the person said it to you, they were wrong?

They had never been you. They had not faced your situation. If they meant well, they were imagining themselves in your place, maybe; more likely, they were transferring some experience of their own and placing it upon you, pushing your real experiences aside in favor of remembering their own. They were feeling empathetic with themselves, not with you.

And in some cases, they were not meaning well at all.

Cold Comfort

They were actually shutting you down, implying “Well, my experiences are as bad as yours, and I’m just as deserving of sympathy, so why are we talking about you?” Maybe on a subconscious level, they even sensed that by substituting their griefs for yours they could liberate themselves from feeling further responsibility to persist with you through your time of trial. “After all,” they could tell themselves, “we all know what it is to go through this kind of thing …”

Really, it might have been no more than the most polite, heartfelt “Shuttup!” you’d ever received.

Were you consoled by these expressions of empathy? Did you believe them? Did they make your situation any better, or did they become the replacement for what you really needed: patient listening, ongoing caring, practical help and lasting companionship? Were they ultimately no more than your conversation partner’s gateway to escape from the duty of really hearing you and going through sorrow with you?

What is empathy worth?

Empathy Gone Mad

Charles Manson died last week. That fact is in all the headlines. And for most people it’s a welcome fact. For some it’s even a gleefully-welcome fact; and humanly speaking who could blame them? Other than Hitler or Stalin, most of us cannot think of a name more readily associated with evil.

Now, I don’t want to talk much about Manson, or even about those who celebrate his departure. Instead, I’d like to point to a surprising fact: a very large number of people empathize with him. A shocking number of people retained sympathy for this babbling, satanic murderer. He had a host of fan clubs and a big online presence through his supporters. During his life, he allegedly continued to receive “tons” of mail support, and there was even a “Free Charles Manson” legal fund established on his behalf. In fact, did you know that he had a “fiancée,” one Afton Burton, who became enamored of him on a prison visit at age 19?

Why mention this? Not to celebrate the life of an insane mass murderer, of course; but to point out that feelings of empathy can be very, very misguided. If you can set the bar as low as Charles Manson, then that bar is pretty darn low, isn’t it?

Against Empathy

I have on my shelf a book with the surprising title Against Empathy. It’s written by Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, and it’s actually well worth a read. It shows multiple examples of what sorts of unfortunate events, miscarriages of justice and even outright harms can come from people who are motivated purely by the emotion of compassion. Bloom’s not against what he calls “rational compassion” — the using of our intellect to decide carefully and wisely when and how to feel empathy with particular persons and situations, and how to act on those feelings. But he’s opposed to letting our feelings of empathy run away with us. Sometimes they do terrible damage.

Another book in this vein is by two economics professors, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, who document the many ways in which Western empathy has actually issued in the debasement and destruction of the poor in the developing world. It’s called When Helping Hurts. In international aid, as in personal relations, sometimes empathy just isn’t enough.

In fact, sometimes it’s actively bad.

The Sin of Empathy

The world in which our Lord walked and the Roman Empire in which the apostles wrote their letters were not particularly empathetic places. In a lot of ways most of the ancients had lives that were simply, as Thomas Hobbes put it, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. But even in that tough world, empathy was not unknown; and neither was misguided empathy, if we take the scriptural record seriously.

Think of the Israelites who couldn’t resist mixing and matching with the idolatrous nations around them. I have no doubt they were very empathetic folks. Even Solomon, the great wise man, got the empathy bug; and look where it landed him. Ahab the king was so moved by empathy for Israel’s sworn enemy, the Aramean king Ben-hadad, that he actually proclaimed him his “brother”, and then turned him loose to make more mayhem later.

In the New Testament, we find that the church at Corinth had empathy for a man who was behaving with greater immorality than was conceived in all the nations: and the church had become so full of liberal, open-minded pride that they had been able to embrace him non-judgmentally. Later, we are told that they were terrific at sympathizing and putting up with false teachers, but had a somewhat harder time putting up with the more firm and judgmental teaching of the apostle Paul.

Then in Revelation, we read the Lord’s condemnation upon the church at Thyatira for the sin of allowing evil to breed among them, through their spirit of “tolerance”.

Apparently, there are some times when empathy just goes horribly, horribly wrong.

The Empathetic Christian

I say all this because it is an important cautionary note. We live in an age in which empathy is continually being asked of us, by our political atmosphere, in our media, in our public schools, and throughout all aspects of our omni-tolerant, Western, liberal post-Christian culture; and we are encouraged to believe that what the world needs now is simply more and more empathy. To “feel for” the suffering of others is held up to us as the litmus test for generosity of heart and moral integrity. The feelings produced in “feeling for” other people are treated as themselves absolute certification that we know what is the right thing to do: and the right thing to do is always to put oneself emotionally in the place of another person, to “walk a mile in his shoes”, so to speak, and then to make one’s decisions about policy and action based on the imaginary feeling of having “been there” with that person or group.

We are being told that the Christian thing is to be empathetic with women’s desire for “choice”, especially when that choice is to kill their unborn children for convenience. Likewise, arguments for “gay marriage”, or transgenderism, or immigration policy, or welfare initiatives are largely advanced to us on the basis that not to support such causes is supposedly a failure of “Christian” empathy.

The Gospel in a Hoarse Whisper

But before that, it was essentially the reason we were given for converting local churches into “seeker sensitive” drop-in centers. Empathy was the incentive to downplay talk of sin, of judgment and of righteousness. Empathy was a chief reason we ended distinct gender roles in the church. Empathy made us soften down the gospel to a hoarse whisper, and then hide it inside the churches instead of taking it out into the world. Empathy was the reason we were given when theology, missions and evangelism went out of vogue, and we replaced them all with various short-lived and not-too-overtly-Christian social-justice initiatives. The gospel would take care of itself, we were told, if we just became very, very empathetic and kind.

In short, a naïve reliance on vague empathies to motivate and inform the Christian life has become the downfall of much of Western Christendom today. Just as the mainline churches (who gave into this vague empathy impulse long ago) are in staggering decline and in danger of entire dissipation, evangelical churches are lining up to go the same route.

Mercy Without Truth

So I want to advance a radical idea here: there is no mercy without truth. Those who would have us soft-pedal sin in the interest of empathy are actually the least practically-empathetic people of all. Some may be merely misguided, followers of their hearts — they need to be taught by the wise and spiritually mature to see past their feelings.

But others, well, others may be caught up in a twisted devil’s bargain, in which their preservation of their own appearance of being empathetic takes over, and they are actually willing to see suffering people struggle without hope and without God in the world so long as they themselves can keep thinking of themselves as “empathetic”.

Remember the person who says, “I know exactly how you feel”, but really means “Shuttup and let me feel like a sympathetic person”? Well, I suspect that some of them actually go to church.

The Right Balance

John gives us the right balance. He writes, “By this we know that we love the children of God; that we love God and observe his commandments.”

There is nothing genuinely empathetic about someone who does not understand that the very first need of any human being is to love God, and that the best and happiest course for any of us it to keep his commandments. And if we forget that, we just don’t love the children of God.

No matter how empathetic we may feel.

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