Empathy, or feelings of understanding or identification with another, seems to be a primary vehicle of human expression of love and compassion. In the world of therapy, empathy seems the foundation for all good counselor work. Sure, we can act in kind, compassionate, yet robotic ways but knowing that someone gets you and helps you is better.
But this begs two questions: Are empathy and altruism connected and parallel? And, is our empathy really self-serving? Taking the second question further, could our empathic responses be destructive to the very people with whom we want to help? Psychologist Paul Bloom thinks so (short video of his contra empathy point of view). While I think his argument against empathy is seriously flawed and really merely an argument against naïve, superficial, and self-serving do-gooderism–a significant problem in our society where we solve problems on emotion and often without taking the time to understand either cause or consequence–the bigger question is whether or not we ever really have concern for others outside of self-interest. And if we discover that all empathy is self-serving, does that deny the Christian virtue of self-denial and voluntary submission to others?
What is at the heart of our empathic, altruistic behavior?
We all have numerous instances where we have witnessed self-sacrificing behavior. The reason these instances stand out in our memories is that they are unusual and somewhat rare experiences. But consider the more run-of-the-mill expressions of empathy. You see a GoFundMe page for a friend in need and you give. Your church is seeking donations for Thanksgiving baskets and you buy groceries. Your neighbor is sick and you mow her lawn. Do we do these behaviors for them? Or do we do it, in large part, for ourselves?
Josh Litman’s paper “Is Empathy Ultimately Just Narcissism?” seeks to summarize the research literature about whether empathy and altruism are positively correlated and whether empathy is really about the other or about self-interest. His answer? Empathy and altruism may not be all that connected. Empathy is better understood as feelings of “oneness” or connectedness to the other. When I identify more with someone, I’m more likely to feel empathy and do self-sacrificial for them.
In conclusion, this paper defends a non-altruistic, egoistic strain of empathic concern. It might be heavy-handed to call it narcissism, but evidence has shown that empathic concern is certainly motivated by self-interested factors rather than selflessness.
Could this be the reason why more people changed their Facebook profile images to a French flag after the Paris bombings and far fewer chose a Turkish flag after the most recent airport bombing? Do we more closely identify with one group over another and thus feel more empathy and make more statements of support and care?
Does this proclivity to more strongly identify with some more than others reveal self-interest and self-concern? If so, does that make our caring of others all about ourselves and cause us to suspect the warmth and empathy we get from others?
So you, too, must show love to foreigners, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt. (Deut 10:19, NLT)
Oneness and love in the created and the Creator
I think empathy can be self-serving (I care for you because I want to be cared for) but I do not think it must be this way. Rather, I would argue that we have been designed to understand our world by means of our experiences. Because I understand what it could feel like to lose my home to a flood I am moved to donate time and talent to help rebuild a home. Because I see your humanness, I am able to empathize with your losses and then consider what possible ways I might respond.
Oneness does help us empathize. But empathy is not the same thing as love. True love, as an action verb, requires a willingness to expend self for the sake of another. True love enlarges the population you are one with. So, straight people find themselves in the experiences of gay people; Christians in the experience of Muslims; liberals in the experience of conservatives. True love moves beyond simplistic understandings with oneness and best reflects the character of God who self-sacrificially loves beyond measure, choosing to take up our infirmities as his own.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! (Phil 2:5-8, NIV)
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.(Heb 4:15, NIV)