Posted by: janineplusbrianequals | August 12, 2010

The Limits of Empathy

As near as I can tell the week of July 29th to August 5th was the worst week of my life.

The economy continued to stumble and more people joined the lists of unemployed in America. Over 100 people were injured and 36 killed in an explosion in Basra, Iraq. Mud and landslides crushed a town in north-western China and killed over 127 people and left 1,300 missing. Heat waves in Russia are seen as responsible for 5,000 deaths this week as well as starting massive wildfires which have choked up the city of Moscow.

But all of these disasters are eclipsed by the damage wrought by flooding in Pakistan. Millions of people had their land and homes destroyed. Experts estimated that 15 million have been negatively effected. 1,600 have lost their lives in these floods and many more are expected to follow as food and clean water shortages combine with the spread of diseases spread amongst the suddenly homeless. This is credited as the worst flooding in Pakistan’s history and thought to require multiple billions of dollars in aid for recovery.

I can barely begin to image what it would feel like to have one’s entire village wiped off the map along with most of one’s friends and family. Survivors of the worst hit areas had everything in their life destroyed.

It is astonishing to realize that a disaster of these proportions happens somewhere every couple years. Earthquakes in Haiti, tsunamis in South-East Asia, hurricanes in the gulf flattening Caribbean islands or battering the Southern coast of America. How can the human race sustain these levels of pain?


Apart from the rare individual like Job in the Bible, we are blessed with degrees of distance from most of the world’s hardship. We have a blessed lack of empathy which stems from degrees of separation.

I don’t personally know anyone from Pakistan. I met a Pakistani on an airplane once. I went to school with people who had distant relatives in Pakistan. I have associates who have associates who are involved in the health and aid work in Pakistan.

While floods were flattening whole towns in Pakistan, Jason Schnarr’s death rocked the community that surrounded him. The tragic passing of my friend Jason Schnarr is what ruined my week, not the constant hum of disaster and bad news from around the world. Jason meant a great deal to me personally. He impacted my life over a series of years. Jason played a significant role in my social life, in my thought life and in my spiritual life. The breadth and depth of connection with Jason makes the passing of this one person much more difficult for me to bear than the thousands dying in Pakistan’s floods.

I suppose this teaches me two things.

Each one of us has different distances from every person and event in this world. These ranges of closeness mean that we can better serve and be served in times of hardship. There is almost always someone hurt more, or at least as much as we, by a tragedy. We can offer these people support and love in whatever ways come to mind. There are also always people less effected, more removed from the situation who are able to put a hand on our back and keep us standing when times are hard. Sometimes there is so much distance between us and a tragedy that the best we can do is focus on keeping our part of the world ticking. In the midst of heartache it can be comforting to know that there are still babies being born, couples getting married and people going into the office for a day’s work.

The second realization that comes to mind is that since we move through time, we will all eventually find ourselves temporally distanced from tragic circumstances. Time heals all wounds because distance makes everything less painful.

These reflections leave me wondering about the effort of empathy. To what extent should I try to get in the shoes of those suffering around the world? Am I too blind to the poor and needy? On the other hand, does it make sense for me to spend my life in tears? There are certainly plenty of opportunities for weeping should I search them out. The same questions apply to our experience of passing time. How can I possibly forget my friend Jason? Is it some kind of betrayal to allow the worst week of my life to shift days, weeks, months and eventually years into the dim past? It would take sustained empathetic work to stay in touch with the loss I feel now, but perhaps it could be done. Perhaps it would honor Jason’s life if I can avoid forgetting the pain of his passing?

I would rather leave you with my questions, but I will offer the beginnings of my own answer.

I think empathy is an incredible tool which has been given to us. It allows us a type of relationship with others unparalleled throughout the animal kingdom. But to share feelings requires first that there be individuals. I have be a real person. I have to have my own feelings based on my own proximity to the people and events around me. This is what I can truly share.

I want to keep my eyes and heart open to interact with the people around me, giving and receiving support as the opportunity arises. I will trust that the Lord will touch my heart with the inspiration of love when the time is right. The Lord teaches about two steps in a process of empathy (see below). To look into or investigate a situation and then to respond to any authentic feelings of compassion which arise. When we are touched with compassion it is a gift and a call from the Lord, but we don’t have to set about manufacturing feelings where they don’t arise.

I think the same can be applied looking back on the past. I intend to keep investigating my friendship with Jason. When the Lord touches my heart with something genuine I will try to respond and learn from what I am being shown. I don’t need to force or hold onto any kinds of feelings simply because I think I should or because they were my first feelings.

And she opened it, and saw him, the child. That this signifies investigation of its quality, and a perception that it was truth from the Divine, is evident from the signification of “to open,” as being to investigate of what quality it was, for he who opens in order to see what and of what quality a thing is, investigates; and from the signification of “seeing” as being perception (see n. 6732); and from the representation of Moses, who is here “the child,” as being the law Divine or truth Divine (of which in what follows), thus truth from the Divine. (AC 6736)

And behold the boy wept. That this signifies sadness, is evident without explication. (AC 6736)

And she had compassion on him. That this signifies admonition from the Divine, is evident from the signification of “having compassion,” as being an influx of charity from the Lord; for when anyone from charity sees another in misery (as here Pharaoh’s daughter saw the child in the ark of rush and weeping), compassion arises; and as this is from the Lord, it is an admonition. Moreover, when they who are in perception feel compassion, they know that they are admonished by the Lord to give aid. (AC 6737)


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