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Empathy is a Choice

Given 13 June, 2021

I once was responsible for carrying the weight and joys of over 100 souls. A few days before I passed that mantle on to someone else, I began to think about what lessons I would take from the experience. The most surprising lesson involved empathy; I learned that empathy takes effort, empathy has limits, and empathy is a choice.


I share these thoughts because maybe, like me, you view empathy as a Virtue—as something in which we should engage as often as possible. Or maybe you see it as an innate talent, where some are born more empathetic as others. It can be both a virtue and a talent, but that is too simple.  Empathy is also effort, limits, and choices.


Words like ‘empathy’, ‘sympathy’, and ‘compassion’ often carry similar or interchangeable meanings. Even psychology researchers sometimes disagree on the meaning of these terms. Empathy, as I mean it, is the ability to understand someone else’s emotions, why those emotions exist, and to see those emotions as important. Compassion, on the other hand, is the will to meet someone’s emotional need; in other words, to relieve their suffering. I separate the concepts because I believe one can exist without the other.


I started reflecting on empathy when a military member in my command decided to kill themselves and I felt nothing but annoyance. That makes me sound like a monster, and I felt like a monster. I won’t hold you in suspense, here: Everyone responded urgently, they made it to the hospital, received the right treatment, and now they are fine. I acted correctly, but I started with zero empathy.


This person’s job was to keep track of the money. My team gave them training, plus 3 months interning under the previous budget-keeper. In meetings, when the numbers failed to add up, we’d try to gently coach them through the fix. Their job was to keep the budget because they couldn’t do their day job of repairing equipment. We knew gentle coaching and patience was in order.  Yet the numbers continued uncorrected, and any feedback sent purple blotches of embarrassment blooming up their neck. A win for the member was a week passing without co-worker drama, initiated by them.


I did not understand this person’s emotional state because I was personally exhausted, and because we are very different people. When you’re coaching, guiding, cheering, and disciplining more than 100 people you get to experience more than a hundred different tragedies and triumphs. Family member deaths, fathers with drug problems, cancer diagnoses, car wrecks, crushing debt, earning a degree, having a baby, winning an award, beating cancer. The wins and losses of this person seemed so small in comparison. I was exhausted, and I didn’t want to exert any more emotional effort.


I may still seem like a monster at this point in the sermon, but it turns out, I’m not alone. Decades of psychological research has shown that people tend to avoid empathetic responses unless they perceive an attached reward. Instead of inherent rewards, empathy often carries a cost. Understanding someone else’s emotional suffering can lead to an impulse to help which may require spending time and money. It can also lead to the “vicarious experience” of emotional distress. Meaning: imagining your suffering causes me to suffer. Even analyzing someone else’s emotional state imposes a mental cost.


In a widely cited 2019 paper entitled “Empathy is Hard Work,” researchers from Penn State and the University of Toronto measured empathy’s “cognitive cost.” The researchers asked study participants to view still images of faces.  After each face, the participant selected a card from one of two decks. The red deck required participants to write a sentence describing objective, external details of the person pictured. The blue deck required a sentence on the person’s “experiences and feelings.” All 11 variations of the experiment showed that “people robustly and strongly preferred to avoid empathizing with strangers.” It turns out, your natural impulse may be to avoid empathy in order to avoid work.


There are other good reasons to examine your natural empathetic impulses. Just as people tend to avoid empathy for strangers, they also overemphasize the emotional needs of people like themselves, people they know personally, and prefer empathy for individuals over groups.


So if we tend to shy away from helping strangers, and prefer to empathize with our friends, is empathy still a Virtue? 


Yes… within limits and as a choice… which brings us back to Arjun, the ancient Hindu warrior prince from our opening reading.


We find Arjun on the eve of a great battle, the opening act in a civil war. Arjun orders his chariot to where he can observe both armies. From his vantage point, he sees cousins, uncles, teachers, and friends arrayed [RL5] against him, ready to die for their cause. Arjun loses his nerve and cries out to his god in pain.  “Save me from having to kill my family and friends”.


Upon hearing his plea, Arjun’s chariot driver reveals himself as Lord Krishna.


At his point, you may expect Krishna to have encouraged Arjun to offer some forgiveness and compassion. Instead Krishna tells Arjun he’s got some killing to do. ‘Stop feeling sorry for yourself. You can’t help your enemies and fulfill your righteous cause.’ This is of course shockingly different from our modern preference for avoiding war if possible. Lord Krishna also softens the blow by pointing out everyone’s getting reincarnated, anyway.  At any rate, Arjun’s vivid empathy prevented him from taking action.


Contrast Arjun’s story in the Bhagavad Gita with the Christ’s good Samaritan parable. In the parable, a Jewish man travels on the road between Jericho and Jerusalem where bandits rob him and beat him near to death. A Jewish priest and a priest’s assistant pass by the injured man, electing not to help. Finally, a member of a rival group, a Samaritan, goes out of his way to save the injured man. Christ ends the parable by asking “who’s the better neighbor”?


Here we have two stories, from two major religions discussing the limits of empathy. The upper and lower limits. Arjun has too much, the Jewish priests too little. The Samaritan comes out just right.


If sciences ask us to consider the costs, and religion the limits, of empathy, what should we do?  We’re left with deliberately choosing how we apply empathy to maximize its virtuous qualities, so I’ll end with my non-scientific, non-religious recommendations:


If I am low on empathy, I remember the following:


- First, I find ways to trigger my empathy. I go see the person or situation for myself. When I visited my military member in the hospital I stopped seeing them as an underperformer, and started seeing them more accurately as a young person struggling with mental illness.


- Second, I remind myself that compassion does not require empathy. We can act to relieve suffering without “feeling” anything about it. In my military member’s case, I did act compassionately.


- Third, since empathy takes effort, I know it’s also a skill I can expand with practice. When someone acts out, I imagine what emotional need they are trying to fill.  I start with the most innocent motivations possible: social acceptance, fear, validation, etc. Most people are not motivated by a desire to harm. By testing my hypotheses against future behavior, I can pick up on patterns and improve my accuracy over time.


When I’m frozen like Arjun, I try something different:


- I remember every act of empathy carries an opportunity cost. The time I spent empathizing with minor problems distracted me from understanding my military member’s suffering in a timely manner. When I find myself overinvolved in someone’s life, I ask “who else might be suffering more?”


- Like the Good Samaritan, I focus on problems and people I can affect. Whose wounds can I actually bind. While I theoretically sympathize with the plight of Uyghurs in China, they are beyond my reach.  [RL6] [KO7] 


- I try to maintain my sense of self. I don’t need to feel someone else’s pain to ease their pain.


- Finally, I remind myself that not every problem deserves my empathy. When someone is experiencing the minor natural consequences of their own actions, I don’t need to step in or take on their burden. Some pain can only be relieved through experience and personal refection. I can offer perspective or compassionate listening, but I try to focus my attention on people who are suffering from factors outside their control.  


I find empathy’s cost makes it a more precious gift. Instead of an infinite resource, it’s a choice—a virtue I can improve through practice.

Go forth and practice.

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