Monday, January 11, 2010


My 10-year-old, Owen, asked me the other night at dinner what the difference is between empathy and sympathy. It's not a question I ever really pondered until after college, but it's one I've thought about a lot over the past several years.

I edited a brief paper today on debt in impoverished nations. I came across a fact from a book by ethicist Peter Singer that, frankly, depressed me. Or perhaps "scared" is the better word here:

Three months after 9/11, $353 million was raised for the families of the officers and firefighters who died in Manhattan that day. The amount came to about $880,000 per family. Around this time, UNICEF published a report stating that roughly 30,000 children die every day around the world from preventable causes. But UNICEF, of course, saw no rise in donations during this same period.

Now, I don't at all mean to imply the $353 million should have been sent to UNICEF instead. But I do wonder why we are more profoundly affected by tragedy close to home than to tragedy thousands of miles away. And is it geographical distance that makes the difference? Or is it our complete inability to truly feel for someone who doesn't share our ethnicity or our socio-economic status or our religion?

I watched the movie "Life Is Beautiful" when I was about eight-months pregnant with Owen. I cried so hard at the end that I had to cover my mouth because I was afraid of the sobs choking my throat. I'm a crier under the best of circumstances, but add a few hormones to the mix, and I'm a wreck. But my reaction was about more than hormones. Ron asked me as we left the theater why it affected me so profoundly: "Is it because you imagine yourself in that father's shoes?" I said no. I felt sad for that father and that son. But as I thought more about it--and even now I reflect back on how extreme my response to the film was--I was lying to myself. The movie broke my heart precisely because I was imagining the heartache of saying goodbye to my child, and imagining my child growing up without me but with a surety of my love for him.

NPR recently aired an interview with a man who has studied Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel extensively. He said Heschel believed all the world's problems could be solved if we could simply feel what others are feeling. This, I explained to Owen over dinner, is what empathy is. Heschel said, "A religious man is a person who holds God and man in one thought at one time, at all times, who suffers harm done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair."

Heschel didn't qualify that statement with "who suffers harm done to others who are like us."

Is it really that hard to feel for someone not like us? Do we have to imagine that child starving could be our child starving in order to care? It scares me that the answer, whether we want to admit it or not, is too often "yes."

I don't want my own empathy to be weakly derived from the effort of trying to imagine how I would feel in "their" position. I want it to be derived from understanding how it feels for them to be in their position. That kind of empathy is what can propel us to action. Anything less is what leaves us in barely controlled sobbing in a movie theater.


Shankar said...

Very thought-provoking. It reminds me of the old adage "Before you criticize someone, walk a mile in his shoes". I'm not sure if that is the exact quote, but it suffices to convey the point. I think we far less than it is in our capacity to do because we do not (or do not have the capacity to) empathise.

Bobbie said...

Shankar, I believe the quote was originally Native American: "Grant that I may not criticize my neighbor until I have walked a mile in his moccasins." But yes, it reminds me of that as well. Only my question is whether that's really empathy. If we've walked in their shoes, then we're not really feeling for *them* anymore, are we? Aren't we then superimposing ourselves on their experiences, and then feeling for ourselves? I don't know. It's a real struggle. And I completely agree that we do far less than we *can* do--often b/c we don't (or aren't able to, or don't *want* to) empathize.