I’ve come to the limits of empathy

I know. Heresy. But I have valued empathy, and I think I’ve walked the distance. And I don’t like the destination.

This summer I was having a chat with a psychiatrist about a student, and as several situations were described, she said, “Oh, trouble with empathic limits.” (Past educators so empathized with the emotional trials that they ceased to expect the student to learn.)

This was a new term for me, and like any other curious, computer accessing human, I came home and googled “empathic limits.” I found an article I’ve reread numerous times by David Brooks. Here’s the crux for me:

In the early days of the Holocaust, Nazi prison guards sometimes wept as they mowed down Jewish women and children, but they still did it. Subjects in the famous Milgram experiments felt anguish as they appeared to administer electric shocks to other research subjects, but they pressed on because some guy in a lab coat told them to.

Empathy orients you toward moral action, but it doesn’t seem to help much when that action comes at a personal cost. You may feel a pang for the homeless guy on the other side of the street, but the odds are that you are not going to cross the street to give him a dollar.

There have been piles of studies investigating the link between empathy and moral action. Different scholars come to different conclusions, but, in a recent paper, Jesse Prinz, a philosopher at City University of New York, summarized the research this way: “These studies suggest that empathy is not a major player when it comes to moral motivation. Its contribution is negligible in children, modest in adults, and nonexistent when costs are significant.” Other scholars have called empathy a “fragile flower,” easily crushed by self-concern.

My summary is that “awwwwww” feelings do not move people to act rightly, kindly, justly, wisely, lovingly, compassionately. Further Brooks notes that

People who actually perform pro-social action don’t only feel for those who are suffering, they feel compelled to act by a sense of duty. Their lives are structured by sacred codes.’

Mercy is a verb. It’s covenant loyalty. I don’t just want to feel with you where you are now; I believe in what the Heavenly Father is doing in your future. I will weep with you today, and I will hope with you into tomorrow. And my actions will align with that hope.

Compassion is a verb. In school I learned it means that my bowels move for you. I’ve got an upset stomach on your behalf, so let’s do something about it.

As an educator, I feel for the kids who can’t read or write. But if all I do is feel, then the students will never learn these vital skills. I’m for you; how can we work together to help you realize your potential.

As a parent, I’m sorry you’ve had a hard day. And your chores still need to be done. Part of life is learning to push through, so how can I help you?

As a human, I’ll cry over what I see on the news. Now what small, even gestural, way can I help.

If another gets stuck in their emotions, empathy can get stuck with the person. Mercy and compassion do something.

He has shown you, oh Ellen,

What is good

What the Lord requires of you, but to

Act justly and to

Love Mercy and to

Walk Humbly with your God.

Micah 6:8

(You may want to jump ahead to the music.)

If you are fascinated with words, as I am the Online Etymology Dictionary explains that

empathy (n.)Look up empathy at Dictionary.com
1908, modeled on German Einfühlung (from ein “in” + Fühlung “feeling”), which was coined 1858 by German philosopher Rudolf Lotze (1817-1881) as a translation of Greek empatheia “passion, state of emotion,” from assimilated form of en “in” (see en- (2)) + pathos “feeling” (see pathos). A term from a theory of art appreciation that maintains appreciation depends on the viewer’s ability to project his personality into the viewed object.

Not only do I see gravity and modesty and pride and courtesy and stateliness, but I feel or act them in the mind’s muscles. This is, I suppose, a simple case of empathy, if we may coin that term as a rendering of Einfühlung; there is nothing curious or idiosyncratic about it; but it is a fact that must be mentioned. [Edward Bradford Titchener, “Lectures on the Experimental Psychology of the Thought Processes,” 1909]

… there is no doubt that the facts are new and that they justify their name: the art work is a thing of “empathy” (Titchener, Ward), of “fellow feeling” (Mitchell), of “inner sympathy” (Groos), of “sympathetic projection” (Urban), of “semblance of personality” (Baldwin), all terms suggested by different writers as renderings of the German Einfühlung. [“The American Yearbook,” 1911]

Empathy then is a newish English word that has me seeing myself in what I’m looking at. When another human is distressed, I want to share their emotion, see the other person, try to understand their experience, and if I can in any way, lighten their load, and I may not see myself in the situation at all.



Leave a Reply

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