The dangerous difference between empathy and compassion

On Friday, December 2, the Washington Post Metro section featured a story, Lessons learned at a mother’s knee, By Marie-Thérèse Labossière Thomas. The writer retold a story that her mother told her that helped her to understand the difference between empathy and compassion. As a child, the writer had participated in the taunting of a poor, disabled girl and her mother was outraged, and said, “Imagine yourself in that girl’s place!”, and then told her daughter a legend she had heard from her father. (You may have read the same story in the Post.)

As I child, I can recall my own mother telling me to imagine myself “walking in another person’s shoes”; “try to understand another person’s life before you ignore them or judge them.” That’s empathy, the desire to understand the experiences of another without actually hearing him or her share their thoughts and feeling with you. “Be sensitive to the lives of others; no one knows into what situation we each might have been born.” – another of my mother’s favorite sayings. I heard and learned many such wise lessons from my mother, who faithfully attended worship services nearly every Sunday of her life. She never said, “What would Jesus do?” But more likely said, “Learn from what Jesus said and did”.

Here’s the story that the writer in the Post retold for the reader: One day, a pauper boy asked a general’s daughter to pour him a cup of water. She laughed at his audacity and sent him instead to the servants. The next day, the pauper returned and offered her a flower. Again, she laughed as she took and smelled it. The general’s daughter disappeared that very night. The general and his servants looked everywhere, but could not find her. A decade later, the general and a group of his officers were riding in an undeveloped area of the town. There, in the woods and almost in plain sight, they found his daughter, who had been living with the pauper and their six children.

When the Post writer told this story to a group of women friends, one of them said, “Empathy is dangerous! It drags people to higher levels of consciousness into the suffering of others. But through compassion one can teach people to fish rather than just feed them.” Empathy, if practiced, can lead to compassion, and compassion can lead to action. The legend above also showed me how dangerous the path from empathy to compassion truly is. Compassion compels us to move from providing charity to working for justice; from feeding the homeless to providing a homeless family with a job and a home, etc. It’s one thing to read a news account of a tragedy and groan with the pain of another’s loss; it’s another thing to read the newspaper and feel compelled to help. Empathy won’t change the world, but compassion will.

Jesus probably began his life having empathy for those who were alone, isolated, marginalized, or rejected for one reason or another, and then as an adult began to break the barriers that divided people one from another and challenged the system that perpetuated poverty and injustice. It was a dangerous and sacrificial path that continues to bring hope and change for a better world to God’s glory.

Peace, Carol

When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then Jesus* summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. (Matthew 9.36; 10:1)

This entry was posted in The Rev. Dr. Carol M. Flett and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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