Most people believe that empathy is compassion. As an empathy lesson, I ask the people in my empathy training classes to ask five people from among their acquaintances: “How do you define empathy?” and to do this without defining empathy for them in advance. The respondents routinely report back with a story about compassion, altruism, charity, niceness, or prosocial behavior. “Prosocial behavior” is an action, behavior, or intervention that helps one’s neighbors. And, heaven knows, the world needs more compassion (and prosocial behavior). However, compassion is distinct from empathy. Empathy Lessons, the book, says how.
Most people regard empathy as something like a switch that one can turn on or off. One has it or one hasn’t. Books that promise to train you in empathy say that the book is going to tell you how to get it. Note this implies you haven’t got it. How do you feel about that? This is not necessarily a good way to begin with one’s prospective audience or client. This book proposes an alternative approach. My modest proposal is: Not more, but expanded empathy.
Let us take a step back. You know how we can feed everyone on the planet, so that there should be no need for people to get sick and die of starvation? Thanks to the “Green Revolution,” high tech seeds, and the economies of scale of agri-business, enough food exists to feed everyone? Yet people are starving. People are starving in the Middle East, Africa, and even in parts of the inner city in the USA. People are starving because of politics (in the pejorative sense), breakdowns in social justice, aggression, prejudice, fragmentation of communities, and human badness. There is enough food for everyone, but it is badly distributed.
Likewise, with empathy. Enough empathy is available to go around; but it is badly distributed. People are living and working in empathy deserts.
Organizational politics, stress and burnout, attempts to control and dominate, egocentrism and narcissism, out-and-out aggression and greed, all result in empathy getting hoarded locally, creating “empathy deserts” even amid an adequate supply.
Therefore, my approach does not call for “more” empathy, but rather for “expanded” empathy. The difference is subtle. Saying “We need more empathy here!” implies the person is unempathic—and that is an insult, a dignity violation. In extreme cases, a person may in fact lack empathy in a formal, technical sense—the serial killer, the psychopath, and persons suffering from some particular mental illnesses (or even a case of flu). However, such persons are an exception or an exceptional situation that will pass.
Experience indicates that the call for “more empathy” results in a further breakdown of empathy. Expanded empathy makes a difference in getting unstuck from difficult, sticky situations, reestablishing relatedness, de-escalating conflict, interrupting anger or soothing rage, shifting out of upset, and overcoming the challenges of relating in a world that can be decidedly unempathic.
This may seem like a rhetorical flourish, and perhaps at some level it is that too; but it is really an accurate description of the subtlety of the human situation, in which people assume their own point of view is right—and, therefore, is the empathic one. With that in mind, we acknowledge this is going to take some work.
In most cases, persons have a significant empathic ability with which the individual is out of touch. The person’s empathy is implicit and is waiting to be expanded. Therefore, my appeal call goes out for expanded empathy—to leverage the kernel of empathy that already exists in the person and develop it, if not into a mountain, at least into large, heaping mound of empathy.
One reason that empathy training programs have not worked or have had mixed results is that they train the participants in compassion, being nice, conflict resolution, baby and child care, and a number of worthy and admirable tasks. This is all excellent, and the use of empathic methods is making the world a better place in all these situations. So keep it up. There is nothing wrong with being nice; and so on: do not be “unnice”! But paradoxically something is missing—empathy.
The empathy lesson (“not more, expanded empathy”) indicates that if one subtracts empathy from compassion, then one gets sympathy, reaction, burnout, and compassion fatigue, which end up giving empathy a bad name. Now I do not wish to give anyone a bad name, especially anyone who is committed to empathy, compassion, or making a difference in overcoming human pain and suffering. On the contrary, I acknowledge and honor one and all. The battle is joined; we are all on the same side; but we want to deploy our limited resources wisely.
It is no accident that the word “compassion” occurs in “compassion fatigue.” Could it be that people who are experiencing compassion fatigue, but claim to be in a break down or failure of empathy, are actually in a break down of compassion? If one is trying to be empathic, but one is experiencing compassion fatigue, maybe one is doing it wrong. Maybe one is practicing empathy “wrongly,” clumsily, with inadequate skill, precision, completeness, or finesse; and one needs a tune up for one’s empathy.
From another perspective – the loss of empathy is equivalent to the loss of the individual’s being human. This is documented in the folk wisdom of the ages in a narrative where empathy is conspicuous by its absence. A wonderful example of empathy and its absence is documented in one of the fairy tales (Märchen) of the collection edited by the Grimm Brothers. “The Story of the Youth Who Set Out to Learn Fear” is about a youth – the classic simpleton of the folktale – who tries to learn what shuddering is (i.e., fear in the sense of “goose flesh”).[i]
The hero-simpleton tries so hard to feel fear that he is effectively defended against all feelings. He has no feelings, not even fear. He is insensitive to others’ feelings in the everyday sense. Thus, he lacks empathy and the corresponding aspects of his being human (humanness). He is also ontologically cut off from the community of fellow travelers who share feelings empathically and on the basis of which life matters to them (and him). This deficiency occasions a misunderstanding in the narrative with the sacristan at the local church, and the youth throws the latter down the stairs, resulting in the youth’s disgrace and banishment. As in all classic folktales, the hero goes forth on a journey of exploration of both the world and of himself. He becomes a traveler on the road of life, which is the beginning of his ontological adventures to recover his feelings and become a complete human being.
The point is that empathy is not an obscure capability that requires elaborate technology to make it visible, as when researchers deploy a functional magnetic resonance imaging apparatus (fMRI) to correlate mirror neurons (though we can learn from the latter too). Rather empathy hides in plain view. This folktale, this Märchen, is in fact a ghost story, to be told on dark, windy autumn nights.
The empathy of the audience is aroused by constellating fearful images of the living dead. This makes for a series of humorous encounters with ghouls and haunted castles as the youth sets about trying to learn shuddering – compulsively saying “I wish I could shudder,” having no idea what it means. The hero performs many brave deeds instead – as he is literally not sensible enough to grasp the distinction “fear” and recognize when he should be afraid.
The ghost story provides a framework for images of the disintegration and fragmentation of the self, including literal ghoulish images of bowling with detached heads and a corpse that rises from the dead because the youth gets into bed with it to warm it up – a scenario quite creepy – against which the youth is firmly defended by his complete lack of feeling. None of these images and events matter to him in the way they would matter to an affectively, emotionally whole person. He is surrounded by ghouls and living corpses but, ontologically speaking, he is the one who is an affective zombie, emotionally dead. Without empathy, the individual is emotionally cut-off, i.e., dead.
The subtext of the story is that the individual cannot recover his humanity on his own. He requires the participation of another – and a relationship with the other – to restore the being human (humanness) of his feelings – and to teach him how to shudder. Having raised the curse on the haunted castle and won the hand of the fair princess, the hero finally stops trying to shudder. Only then is he overcome by shuddering at the first opportune occasion.
On the morning after his wedding night – his new wife teaches him shuddering – no, this is not going where you think – she teaches him shuddering in a pun that cleverly masks the physical and sexual innuendo – she throws bowl of cold water filled with gold fish on him with the flipping gold fish included – he wakes up exclaiming that “Ach, yah, now finally I know shuddering!” Now he is finally a whole, enriched, and complete human being.
One reason we intuitively know that the empathizer gets his being human from the empathasand (the target of empathy) is a process of elimination. There is no where else for one to obtain humanness than from another human being. Yes, it is true that the empathizer must have been treated empathically by his own care-takers for him to be able to empathize with others. And, absent such empathy, the would-be empathizer would have nothing to contribute and indeed his own survival as a human being would be at stake.
Empathy has a personal history in which it develops, and this development trails behind it. However, even though the evidence of human development is significant to this study, it is philosophically irrelevant here. We are not referring to historical, developmental, or (as Heidegger would say) “ontical” considerations. No amount of human development in growing up and building a personality, character, or an identity can add up to a necessary conceptual distinction between the individual and the other.
We want to grasp what about the empathic relationship is such that the one with whom empathy is occurring gives the empathizer her or his being human (humanness) independently of particular experiences – as a matter of a necessary and general philosophical distinction – in order to get it back experientially as a particular benefit. If this inquiry can grasp how the individual gets his being human (humanness) from the other in and through empathy, then it will have gone a long way towards showing how empathy is the foundation of human community where “community” means “being with one another in human interrelation.”
[i] Märchen von Einem der auzog das Fürchten zu lernen, translated as “The story of the youth who went forth to learn what fear was” in The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tale, (1814/17), ed. W. Grimm and J. Grimm, tr. M. Hunt and J. Stern. New York: Pantheon Books, 1972: 29f. “Grüseln” means literally “to shudder” or “get the creeps,” “goose bumps,” a classic physical expression of fear. In the Anthropology (1797: §16; 33; 154), Kant calls out “The thrill that comes over us at the mere idea of the sublime and the gooseflesh [grüseln] with which fairy tales put children to bed late at night are vital sensations; they permeate the body so far as there is life in it.” The point is, anyone lacking such an experience, as depicted in the Märchen, is hardly alive, is an emotional zombie. Bruno Bettelheim does not call out the link with empathy in his treatment of this folktale in his The Uses of Enchantment ((1975) New York: Alfred Knopf: 280-82); though, as I recall, Professor Bettelheim did make the connection in classroom discussion that I attended at the University of Chicago in the Spring of 1975. On the relevance of folktales to philosophy see, L. Agosta. (1978). “Kant’s treasure hard-to-attain,” Kant-Studien, Vol. 69, No. 4, 1978: 422-443; and also L. Agosta. (1980). “The recovery of feelings in a folktale,” Journal of Religion and Health, Vol. 19, No. 4, Winter 1980: 287-97.
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project