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We experience these types of empathy in myriad situations: when we are overwhelmed with concern for society’s disadvantaged; when we’re alarmed by the choices others make because we’ve been there, done that; when we allow our understanding of people to get in our way; when we mimic another person’s physical discomfort, for example, copying someone’s itch-scratching or stuttering; when we perfectly comprehend a person’s emotional struggle because we remember when it happened to us, and so on.
We have the opportunity to be empathic dozens of times a day—and each time is an opportunity to display empathy either well or poorly. If you’ve ever come home and neglected your family members because you were still preoccupied with the empathic emotions you felt upon listening to a colleague’s problems, you’ve seen the hazards of empathy overdone or done poorly.
“For just about any human capacity, you can assess the pros and cons,” writes Paul Bloom, a Yale philosophy professor, in his provocatively titled 2019 book, Against Empathy. He proceeds to highlight empathy’s many cons.
For example, empathy is biased; we tend to bestow it on those “who look like us, who are attractive, and who are non-threatening and familiar.” Bloom eagerly points out that he is not against compassion, concern, kindness, love, and morality. He’s all in if that’s how empathy is defined. Bloom is against empathy when it is not supported by reason and disciplined thinking, when it reflects our shortsighted and emotionally coerced responses.
I’m inclined to agree with Professor Bloom. If empathy is the capacity to “walk a mile in another person’s shoes,” we might reasonably ask, “Why stop after a mile? Why not two miles? Why not forever?” This is one of my bones to pick with empathy. For a personal quality bathed in such a brilliant glow of goodness, empathy certainly has a way of making us feel bad about ourselves. It asks too much of us.
We feel guilty when we can’t summon empathy for someone’s suffering. We feel like a phony after we have parted from the object of our empathy and, no longer in their presence, have shed what we felt, as if we had been playacting at empathy, being performatively empathetic, but not authentically so. When do we get relief from the burden of being empathic?
But I do not want to allow such criticisms to obscure why I regard empathy as a requirement for achieving an earned life.
It is not because it makes us more compassionate, moral, or kind, although those are laudable impulses.
Empathy is tremendously important because it reminds us to be present.