On the Limits of our Empathy

On the Limits of our Empathy August 15, 2015

I can remember as a preteen and teenager in the 90’s when I made my first efforts at following current events. What struck me as even more disturbing than the evils of this world was the apparent indifference adults expressed to them. Some horrible thing would happen – a bombing in the Middle East, more lives lost in former Yugoslavia – and life would continue on. Even in history classes, our teachers would carry on with the usual lessons, not stopping to talk about the previous day’s events. There were exceptions to this, of course, when tragedy struck closer to home – the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, The Columbine massacre in 1999, and then, of course, September 11, 2001. But after that, as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq dragged on, all around me everyone – myself included – continued with business as usual.

The reasons for this limit to empathy are obvious. It is perhaps neurologically impossible to empathize with everyone; we do not have the emotional capacity become outraged over every injustice that occurs in the world. A certain amount of detachment – even coldness – is necessary to function on a day-to-day basis. If I were truly, fully sensitive to all of the pain that exists, I probably would find myself unable to do much more than collapse in despair, unable to help myself, much less the people affected by the problems. Some studies suggest that, rather than making us more effective at helping others, too much empathy can actually hinder our efforts. We rely on a certain amount of detachment and place limits on our empathy as a way of protecting our own interests and getting through our own challenges.

Nevertheless, when I look at the world, I find that we generally err on the side of too little empathy than too much, and this lack has serious consequences. The global community’s collective indifference to the 1994 Rwandan genocide is the first example that comes to mind; some people would cite the current situation in Syria as another. The plight of migrants drowning in the Mediterranean en route to Europe, the systemic racism present in the US, the daily suffering of the animals we raise for food in deplorable conditions on factory farms, the continued practice of abortion, the deaths and disappearances of thousands of Mexicans and Central Americans caught up in the drug trade, and the frequent political deadlock that occurs in an increasingly polarized US – I believe these wrongs and many others could be ameliorated by an increase in our empathy.

This fellow feeling does not necessarily entail an increase in emotional intensity or a collapse into sentimentality. As the French philosopher Simone Weil suggests in her 1947 classic Gravity and Grace, love is not merely an emotive act, but an epistemic one: “Belief in the existence of other human beings as such is love. The mind, is not forced to believe in the existence of anything (…) That is why the only organ of contact with existence is acceptance, love. That is why beauty and reality are identical. That is why joy and the sense of reality are identical” (64).

For Weil, love is the basic requisite for knowledge of the world, for without this love, we fail to notice it at all. Instead, we only see ourselves and our desires. We fail to recognize that the people around us are complete selves in the same way that we are. We are incapable of empathy.

A more recent iteration of this problem can be found in the writings of the late David Foster Wallace, who is best known for his hyper-realist fiction. In “This is Water,” his 2005 commencement address to the students of Kenyon College, he argues that seeing the world from the perspective of another is an effort of the mind as much as the heart. He reveals that in the theatre of our consciousness, we all believe ourselves to be the heroes of our own story:

Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realist, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

For Wallace, who was a practising Christian, the challenge of getting out of one’s head is one of the most difficult and components of adult life. Offering the quotidian example of a crowded supermarket at 6 p.m. on a weekday (and then the crowded highway home), he describes the way you or I might view others in that situation: as faceless nothings in our way. He urges us to get out of our default viewpoint and view this reality from a different perspective.

In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way. Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.

Wallace may be stating the obvious, but that is the very point. Like fish that do not know what water is, we are often unaware of the most basic and obvious realities. To see other people as truly, fully human, to break out of our own consciousness and see the world as they do – this requires a conscious, deliberate effort on the part of the rational mind.

In my own undergraduate education I was fortunate to study ancient Greek philosophy with a deeply rational and compassionate professor named Elfie Raymond. For her, philosophy was not a set of historic texts but a living dialogue that we are all called to take part in, and she was determined to help her students live the ideas that we were learning. One concept that she stressed again and again was that of ontological parity, the basic truth that all humans hold the same moral worth, merely on the basis of our existence. This might seem as obvious a truth as the existence of water…But for Professor Raymond, who as a child watched as her hometown was ravaged by the Nazis, it is a reality of which we need constant reminders.

The question that remains, then, is how do we get these reminders? For me, the arts are one point of entry. When reading a novel or watching a film, we encounter characters who are simultaneously different from ourselves and the same; we see our own lives and experiences reflected, but we also encounter realities that might surprise us. Another vehicle of empathy available to us as Catholics is the Eucharist, which reminds us of the mystery of the Incarnation and our own deep connection to one another as the mystical Body of Christ. However, this reality can be easy to lose sight of when, like the people in Wallace’s anecdote, I am waiting in line at the supermarket full of grouchy old men and crying babies. When fellow feeling fails, we are invited to use our capacity for thought, to truly think about the realities too obvious to notice, to keep repeating to ourselves, “This is water…This is water.”


Wallace, David Foster. “This is Water.” Transcription of the 2005 Kenyon Address, May 21, 2005. http://web.ics.purdue.edu/~drkelly/DFWKenyonAddress2005.pdf

Weil, Simone. Gravity and Grace. New York: Routledge, 1999.

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  • gary schofield

    Very encouraging post thank you…

    “Therefore, send not to know
    For whom the bells tolls
    It tolls for thee.”

    For us that carry the world upon our shoulders, especially those of us who have artistic sensibilities, constant outrage can become our own tormentor, and the frustration of feeling powerless can make us ill. I have myself found something of a solution in realising that for the believer, politics is synonymous with Charity. Working in community toward a common goal, seeking souls and social change, channels all those feelings into rational activity. One of the greatest challenges we face in the current climate is the battle against ethical relativism and the unity and purpose of the church is our strength. The enigmatic directive ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’ is our pleasure and ultimate desire, the formulating of moral directives and methods in order to sustain the meanings of ethical revelation is our joy of being together, it is the purpose that we have been given in this fallen world and its name is ‘Charity’.

  • Ronald King

    Well stated Jeannine. I wrote Pope Benedict a letter in 2007 asking him to lead us on a pilgrimage to Darfur to care for the refugees. I received a letter from his office stating that he also shared my concern and suggested that I read his first encyclical God Is Love.
    Empathy requires us to move for the known to the unknown. I/we are afraid of leaving the known and venturing into the unknown. The Eucharist is part of the known. If the Eucharist were truly experienced as the unknown I believe that all of us would be overwhelmed with the awareness of suffering throughout the world and we would have to do something about it or shut down or just go crazy with feelings of powerlessness and shame.
    I could explain what I mean by the Eucharist needing to be experienced as the unknown but I’m a grumpy old man waiting in line at the grocery store. I like your posts.

    • Mark VA

      Yep, mentioning growing up in the 90’s – that sure can make one feel old, and possibly grumpy.

      Thus, in this vein:

      • Ronald King

        Mark you’re killing me 🙂

        • Mark VA


          On a more serious note, I like your idea of asking the pope to care for refugees in person – and, if I may add, to ask or order his fellow bishops to do likewise.

          The situation on Francis’s own doorstep (it is a mere 462 miles from Rome to Skopje) is desperate, and his leadership and the resources he commands are needed now:


        • Jayne

          Ron, it is me, Jayne. I have been living on my own now for quite sometime, I make 650.00 a month and my rent is 620.00. John is living in the house because he makes 17.00 an hour and I make minimum wage and I couldn’t keep it up. I am on the AARP program where they only allow you to work 18 hrs a week and the rest of the time your suppose to look for work. There is terrible age discrimination as I am 57 and no one wants to hire you. I have a phone from the federal government that does not give you more than 250 mins a month.. I could send you a resume I have worked so hard to gain skills. But I am a middle aged white woman who is not bi lingual and it is killing me. Anyway I thought these people you hang out with should know. What is the world going to do with middle aged women who’s husband lost their moral compass and all the family money and these woman are litterly the beggars of 2015. No tin cup but beggars non the less. Example, I called local legal aid because my husband will not give me a dime and I figured I have to file for divorce because I can not survive. They referred me to NW Justice project in Seattle to start the ball rolling. I had to run to the public library to find a phone ,damn I had to pay but I didn’t have a quarter. So I ran to the library desk and begged them to use a phone. They gave me a phone, after dialing twice they told me it only makes local calls. So then I had to beg again I told them I only make 650.00 a month and my rent was 620.00 and I really needed to reach NW Justice project. the woman was very nice and let me use their phone, where I had to sit in front of the Mothers with their young children and say I only make 650.00 a month and my rent is 620.00 after waiting on hold for 30 mins. so they could interview me. Thank God the Mothers slowly moved their children away. I wanted to scream I am one of you I took my children to the library, church and swimming lessons. I was a faithful devoted wife, and now I am nothing. I pray the Catholic church and Pope Francis will see us , will recognize our pain and abandonment, and help us.

  • Liam

    I would humbly suggest that that DFW’s assertion is not in fact correct as a universal “truth” of epistemic reality. There are people whose ego development is nominal to MIA, and who tend to treat the realities of *other* people as more “real” than their own experience.


  • Mark VA

    Well written, Jeannine!

    Regarding the question about remembering “ontological parity”: I would say the best way to internalize this truth is to practice charity. Look around you, and do something that needs to be done;

    I believe that consuming art (and education) helps refine what may be a “naive” or “rudimentary” form of charity, but consumption is not creation. So, let’s create charity first.

  • “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (MT 5:4)
    [He] needed no one to bear witness of man; for he himself knew what was in man. (Jn 2:25)

  • Jayne

    Also, I might add, my oldest son is perusing his PhD on a full ride at the University of Washington. My second son is building his own company of Construction and Graphic Arts. My daughter travels the world doing Gods work by helping to restore sight to the blind. Her last two trips were to Ethiopia and Guatemala. I am A proud mother of these amazing people.

  • Jayne

    I beg you to get off your intellectual couches. Take your many gifts you have received from God and do Pope Franc ice’s work. In the street for the people, How can those who know so much and have so much, understand so little. Gods children are suffering and he has sent YOU to help…the people who need help are worthy. I know for I am one of them