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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