The Natural Disaster of Empathy Overload

The Natural Disaster of Empathy Overload May 24, 2011
Source: Green For All

I once heard Pastor Shane Hipps (an expert on media technology and marketing) describe a consequence of globalized media.  He talked about how as humans, we are designed to empathize with one another which should inevitably lead to compassionate action.  So, when we see a natural disaster being covered on CNN, our hearts ache as we see everyday normal folks struggling to put the pieces of their lives back together.

Shane didn’t stop with that simple observation that we already know, but went on to discuss how media shapes our empathic capacity.  Part of our human design is an ability to empathize with people who are suffering within our own proximity.  We see their plight in everyday life and we can then take direct compassionate action.  But over the past 50 years, our technology has progressed to the point where we literally know about nearly every human tragedy throughout the world… sometimes, even seconds after it has taken place.  Whereas before, empathy was reserved for the local sphere, today we relinquish such on a globalized scale.  We hurt for places we may never actually visit in the flesh.

The positives to this situation are evident.  We should know when tsunamis, earthquakes, famine, disease, and any form of human suffering takes place abroad.  We in the United States have more resources than we know what to do with, so having quality information and subsequent options for helping the hurting in times of crisis gives us the chance to make a real difference beyond our local sphere.  This is truer today than ever before in human history.  Even situations that seem “global” to a guy sitting on the couch typing an article on a laptop in California, such as the tornado devastation in Joplin, instantly this horrific disaster becomes part of my life thanks to cable TV’s impeccable coverage.  I can now choose to give resources to aid immediate relief efforts and the web creates effective pathways to do so.


According to Shane, there can be a dark side to having access to all of the suffering throughout the world, however.  Empathic capacity overload quickly overwhelms the senses potentially leading to post-tragedy paralysis.  We easily become convinced that this is just another tragedy that makes us sad (like Haiti, Japan, Katrina, etc), so we shut down and decide to do nothing.  Tomorrow the news will only get worse.  Empathy overload!

Follow this to its logical conclusion and what happens to our everyday lives in our local contexts?  The suffering person on the street corner by the Starbucks we study at becomes easier to ignore.  The need for healthcare and education in our inner-city becomes someone else’s problem.  And the most tragic result of this localized empathic paralysis is this: regular human needs that we encounter everyday do not make good headlines.  Therefore, needs that could be dealt with locally become overwhelming and global needs become our quick $25 donation justice fix for the next 6 months until the next disaster hits. This is the natural disaster of empathy overload.

In an increasingly globalized media driven world, we Christians are going to need to learn how to overcome our empathic overload, if we are going to avoid missional paralysis.  Should we give resources to global causes to fight injustices in places like Africa and other third world countries?  Yes!  Should we give what we can to the closer yet seemingly “global” crises (even places like the Midwest when you live in California) during times of great human need?  Yes!  But may we do so fully aware that our natural empathic capacities may be over-saturated by a new media driven reality, which is both a blessing and a curse for Kingdom people.

Source: Metro News CA



To give to Joplin rescue efforts go here.  Also, if you give, ask God what he may call you to be a part of locally as well!

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  • Good point, Kurt. Part of our current media culture that makes it hard to give responsibly is that because we are saturated with requests for need, we end up having “menu blindness”–like looking at a menu with a hundred items and becoming paralyzed, when if the menu only had 10 items we’d have ordered immediately.

    I honestly don’t know the solution to it other than allowing the Holy Spirit to lead us in where to focus our energy, effort and resources. Back during my UGA Wesley Foundation days in college, a buddy of mine said something that has always stuck with me:

    “We should be LED by the Spirit instead of DRIVEN by the need.”

    That’s the most profound statement on giving that I’ve ever heard and one that’s been a comfort to me when I encounter “empathy overload.”

  • Megan

    You also might consider donating to Mennonite Disaster Services. Those Mennonites know how to get things done. Go to to donate.

  • Hi Kurt

    May I suggest a further resources to learn more about empathy and compassion.
    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and
    information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles,
    conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and
    much more about empathy and compassion.

    Also, we invite you to post a link to your article about empathy to our Empathy Center Facebook page.

    I posted a link to your article in our
    Empathy and Compassion Magazine
    The latest news about empathy and compassion from around the world



  • Excellent post, and definitely needed, Kurt – thanks. I hope to share a lead through my empathy blog sometime. And Edwin, thank you for sharing your work with the Center for Building a Culture of Empathy. I host a blog called With Those Who, a journal of empathy ( and also have administrated for a few years an effort called Not One Sparrow, a Christian voice for animals ( – best wishes, Ben

  • Celeste

    A number of years ago, I developed a crisis of faith because of empathy overload.  I won’t describe all that went into it, and I was never angry at God for how the world works … I guess the crisis was with myself, because I could NOT shut down the empathy portal, and grew more and more overwhelmed and despondent.  Lacking the ability to shut down, to officially overload, I nearly completely withdrew from the world.  Life was just too painful, the membrane between me and all that suffering was too thin. 

    Then God worked directly in two unmistakable ways: first He answered a prayer and removed the situation that had started the overload for me — in a one month window, the situation was corrected entirely, and in a way that had no natural explanation.  Secondly, He prompted me to re-read the Chronicles of Narnia.  And the final scenes of the final book, one of the children sees that all that was lost in this world is still present in the ‘new heaven and earth’.  And that made me realize that the power that defeated death is still present in a very real way.   And we are meant to channel it to others in order to avoid overload.  

    Now I find that my empathy is bottomless, but so is my trust in God.  We are suffering here ‘but for a little while” and it’s a necessary part of how he refines us — both as an experiencer of suffering and as an agent of help for suffering.  I can and do give every time there’s a need from a disaster.  But I also make sure I keep $$ in my wallet for the guy on the corner.  And I give 40 hours a month in Stewardship.   I see the hand of God working in all these events … people fall in love with God by seeing others ‘living out their love’ when disasters strike.   And it’s a beautiful engine for the collecting of souls.

  • Celeste, I just wanted to say I really appreciated your comment. It was very personal and wise, and an encouragement to read. Thank you for sharing from your hard-fought experience – Ben