Reflections on the Nature of Empathy

I am sick. It is miserable. But it has got me mulling over a few thoughts that I actually have fairly often about the nature of empathy. When someone I know is sick, I might say, “Oh, I’m so sorry. Hope you feel better soon.” And I am sorry. I don’t want them to be sick. But why not? I don’t know that it is possible to separate how much of that feeling is real sorrow for their sake and how much is selfish. It is probably true that I’ve been there before and know, at least to certain point, what they are going through. But is that empathy? There is a certain removal or detachment when you hear about someone’s misfortune and you yourself are not at that moment experiencing it.

And sometimes I think it is possible to feel greater empathy for someone going through something you haven’t experienced. Because experiencing something desensitizes you, too. For example, I’ve had a bad cold before. In the moment, when I’m stuffed up and nauseous and feverish it feels… just awful. I can’t remove myself from it. But when my husband gets the same cold and I’m over it, I know it isn’t the end of the world. I might even feel (I know this is terrible) irritated. However, when my sister was diagnosed with cancer, something I’ve never been through, the magnitude of my feeling was overwhelming. Yes, I know these two situations are not comparable, but the thought of her facing the pain of treatment and possibly even death was incredibly scary, partly because of the… mystery, for lack of a better word. I am NOT saying I felt what she felt, but could the depth of feeling, the intensity, the not-knowing, actually have been greater for those of us that hadn’t been there than it would have been for, say, other cancer survivors? Maybe their perspective was more constructive, they certainly understood the situation with greater specificity, but perhaps making it through cancer causes you to look at it from a new angle. When you think you know what someone is going through because you’ve been there, it might seem less earth-shattering.

Another comparison might be the way some people can feel more moved by the plight of an abused animal than by a fellow-human. We don’t know exactly what the animal feels. They can’t tell us, which makes their suffering somehow more poignant.

Language and communication are funny things. We spend so much time on them, but words are seldom sufficient to convey emotion or physical pain. I might feel badly if no one makes an effort to comfort me, but when they do their well-intentioned remarks often fall flat. And not through any fault of their own! I can think of many personal examples. When my sister (different sister) died, my friends and co-workers were supportive and sympathetic. Most hadn’t been through that kind of loss, so the shock and dismay they felt on my behalf probably came closer to the actual feeling of loss I experienced right when I heard than someone who’d been through it before. None of them though, had any idea what the nature of our relationship was, so they couldn’t understand how I really felt. Just the way it goes.

Maybe these words belie whatever knowledge of suffering I think I have. If I seem insensitive, I apologize!

I was going to try to examine my feelings about the humanity of Jesus in terms of empathy, but I don’t have the energy and this post got much longer than I intended! I’ve probably thoroughly confused you if you’ve made it this far anyway. Suffice it to say, the deepest comfort, the deepest feeling of understanding I ever feel does not come from other people but from the wordless moments I spend with God.

Matthew 11:28-30: Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Romans 8:26: Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.


2 thoughts on “Reflections on the Nature of Empathy

  1. Yikes! This one hit home. My husband is presently suffering with a cold, right after I recovered from one. I made a great effort to conceal my discomfort, and did not miss any work. He is making a great deal of his suffering–so the rest of us are also suffering–and he decided not to go to work today. I rarely get sick, and always try to minimize how bad I might feel. Why can’t I have empathy for my husband?

    1. 🙂 I have some theories about my own reasons, but I’m sure you do, too… and I’m quite sure yours are much more informed! Heheh. Hope he’s better soon… for your sake as well as his.

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