Empathy Week: Actually Empathy Is Not Enough

Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are. Benjamin Franklin*

Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) is hot as part of a holistic curriculum for children these days, and it’s been said for a while now that EI (emotional intelligence) is a better predictor of success in the world than IQ (intelligence quotient.)  Teaching empathy is not only possible; it’s become a movement.

Most of us want our children to be Good Humans.  How does that happen?

Being sympathetic is not enough. To say “I feel sorry for that person” keeps us separated from someone’s pain.  They are sick/lonely/poor – but we aren’t, so off we go with the rest of our day.

Being empathic is not enough.  To say “I feel your pain” isn’t even possible most of the time.  I cannot know how a gay person, a black person, a Gen Z person,  a refugee, or an imprisoned person feels because I’ve never been any of those things.  I can try to imagine and my imagination might be pretty good.  But still I cannot know.

God calls us to be compassionate and my resident theologian HH has studied this for most of his professional life.  The Bible refers to Jesus “having compassion” upon people six times in the New Testament.  The Good Samaritan has compassion on the injured stranger.  The Prodigal Son’s father has compassion for his wayward child.  The Greek word here is σπλαγχνίζομαι (splagchnizomai) which literally means to be moved in one’s bowels.

It’s the opposite of “I hate your guts.”

It means “I feel love for you in my deepest guts.”  It’s a verb which implies being one with someone – which is so much more than feeling sorry for them or identifying with their pain. (Note: this is a great article about how literature can take empathy to new levels.)

The Good Samaritan didn’t merely feel sorry for the guy on the side of the road or imagine how much his wounds must have hurt.  He took responsibility for the stranger’s wounds himself.  Sort of like Jesus.

And so, here we are living in a world of conflict and violence.  After George Floyd’s murder all kinds of people who had never considered police brutality or the unnecessary death of Black men suddenly included support on their Instagram accounts.  Some marched in peaceful protests for the first time in their lives.  And then so many of us stopped.

We’ve done our part.  We’ve spoken up bravely on social media. And now we’ve reverted back to sympathy and empathy for our Black and Brown neighbors.

This is not where Jesus stopped.  Jesus never stopped speaking up and walking with those experiencing violence and injustice, racism and sexism.  It was not a temporary activity to stand up to injustice.  It was his life.

Having sympathy for people might be an essential part of our lives.  Feeling empathy for those who suffer physically, emotionally, spiritually, politically might be an essential part of our lives.

But neither of these actions are enough.

  • How are we standing with people in pain?
  • How are we speaking up?
  • What are we doing every day to the point that it’s who we are to seek understanding and hear the stories.

ESPN footbal analyst Kirk Herbstreit – God bless him – broke down in tears saying this over the weekend:

The Black community is hurting. … How do you listen to these stories and not feel pain and not want to help?

Empathy is not enough. We must be moved to do something to help, to become the kind of human being who stands alongside those in any kind of need.

Now more than ever, the Church must speak up and be the ones who help in tangible, transformative ways.

Popular image from a recent BLM protest.  And a note about having Black friends.  (Most White people don’t actually have any.  Read here.)

*Someone shared that Benjamin Franklin didn’t actually say this, although it’s attributed to him all over the place.  Whether he said it or not, it’s true.

3 responses to “Empathy Week: Actually Empathy Is Not Enough

  1. We need to know steps or actions to help. Yes, I know there must be some things I can do. But what exactly and how?


    • Learn all you can about whatever the injustice is (Racism? Homelessness in your city? School inequality? Lack of health care?) Read Books. Zoom classes. Take a teacher, police officer, guidance counselor out for socially-distanced coffee and ask what it’s like to do their jobs.

      Make friends. Volunteer at a shelter and befriend a resident. Join a book group with people of other faiths (or start one. Check out Daughters of Abraham.)

      Contact a house of worship that’s not like yours and say you would like to have a prayer partner from their congregation just to pray for each other and the world.

      Listen to the stories of those who suffer. Just listen. And trust them. And if you are white, use your white privilege to speak up when you hear people dehumanize people like your new friend.

      Keep your eyes open. If you see a homeless person asking for money outside your grocery store or post office or coffee shop, ask if you can buy them coffee or lunch. And then take them out to coffee or lunch. And have a conversation as if this is your sibling.

      Just a few ideas. Thank you for asking.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Empathy Week: Literature by People Whose Lives Don’t Look Like Ours Builds Empathy | A Church for Starving Artists

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