Who’s Afraid of Empathy?

Are we a society of narcissists? Without a doubt. And are we a people afraid of guilt and shame? More than most. Would we rather commiserate with our own misery than take the outstretched hand of others? Plainly. It is astronomically easier to “grin and bear it” than it is to admit weakness. And on account of this, we hide behind excuses like “you wouldn’t understand” or “you’ve never walked in my shoes” or “you’re not me, so stop trying to understand.” And we count on people’s lack of empathy to be a cover for our apathy, anger, suffering, guilt and shame for any number of things or conditions. We rely on others not being capable of empathy because it allows us to reject their compassion as patronizing and condescending; allowing us to continue in our misery. And we’re often right. The absence of empathy can often lead to the misconstrual of suffering as sin, conflating illness with culpability leading to the misdiagnosis of mental illness and other psychological disorders as solely existing in simple categories of sin and spiritual rebellion.

I’ve done those things and I’ve made those excuses in defending my misery by declaring the absence of empathy, I cursed those I said I loved with the ability to empathize with me.

But does that make empathy the poison pill in the caring of others, an infection that no amount of antiseptic can cleanse? I don’t think so. Empathy is certainly not a positive skill; it isn’t something you set out to learn, isn’t something you possess apart from prior experience, empathy is a fruit of pain and is never acquired through anything other than suffering, it’s an irreducible consequence of the fall. Empathy is the practice of suffering with others through common experience, an experience that is shared not by choice but by circumstance. To empathize should not be a therapeutic goal but understood as the result of human suffering in this present evil age. Empathy is an accidental skill born of stumbling through a fallen world. But it is real. That we might share the sufferings of others, though it may and often leads to more effective treatment, is not something to celebrate but lamented because more people suffer. Though as with Joseph, what his brothers intended for ill, God intended for good (Genesis 50:20), the pain and suffering were still pain and suffering. Joseph did not suffer in order to receive comfort from the Lord, but the Lord comforted him and guarded his steps through his suffering.

Empathy is not a qualification for authentic compassion yet neither can it exist apart from the instinct of compassion. Compassion is sympathy “for” not “with”, to have sympathies “with” is to have empathy because you have or are suffering or experiencing alongside them. To say “I have suffered as you have suffered” is not a negative. It’s beneficial to the sufferer, as long as it is true. An experiential affinity for another’s pain is not a hindrance to compassion but an often essential ingredient for fellowship. It is a way for us to turn our pain to blessing in the lives of others in pain.

Compassion without empathy cannot operate healthily apart from a marriage with compassion. It is my shared experience that can gain me entrance into the heart of the afflicted, yet the goal remains that help is found outside of us. Empathy alone leaves us as destitute as we were to begin with, but coupled with a compassion that uses empathy as the first step outside of oneself, it is resoundingly effective.

And I’m not writing this in a vacuum. I speak as a person stricken with mental illness, an affliction regardless of my culpability. And in spite of realizing that I can use my suffering in the service of others, it is a suffering that I desperately wish that I could banish from my life, despite the window it gives me into the pain of others. But it isn’t a window that, given the choice, that I would leave open, not even a crack.

But this doesn’t make empathy without merit or necessarily insidious by nature. I don’t demand that those who counsel me suffer in the same way that I do. In fact, I rarely want them to. I know well how I feel, though it can get lost in translation. But there are also those times when the fellowship of those with like afflictions can be a reminder I’m not alone, that there are people out there like me that I don’t have to explain myself to be understood. That in itself, can be cathartic. Because it can become incredibly exhausting to always have to explain your pain.