Seeking Compassion for Empathy

Dear Fellow Word Wrestlers:

This Monday I’ve been musing about empathy. With apologies to those who find word studies tedious, I find it interesting that empathy is a relatively new word. It comes as an English translation of the German word Einfühlung, a term popular in late 19th century German aesthetics to describe how an artist “feels into” a particular medium. In German, the term was used exclusively in art analysis. At the turn of the century (the word first appeared in English in 1909), American psychologists, who at the time all read German, used the word to describe how one can know the feelings of another. Fast forward several decades in popular psychology to Star Trek: The Next Generation and Bill Clinton’s famous “I feel your pain” response to an AIDS activist on March 27, 1992 (isn’t Wikiquote amazing?), and you have a word completely wormed into the American psyche.

The word empathy sounds old, building on the ancient Greek word pathos, which means suffering or feeling, and the prefix em, meaning into—giving the perception that the word and concept have been around for a long time. But its newness betrays what I suggest is an artificial construct. Pastors are taught early on to NOT say, “I know how you feel,” yet at the same time we are encouraged to have empathy. Seems somewhat self-contradictory. The concept has become a virtue, but unlike other virtues like honesty, empathy is not something that can be verified. I cannot empathize sufficiently with your empathy to understand just how empathic you may or may not be. It is the ultimate in self-referential affirmation.

Empathy is the act of selecting the most appropriate emoji in an attempt to let you know I feel the same way about your dog, your kid’s school promotion, the losses suffered in Puerto Rico, as you do. And because I know how you feel, we don’t really have to talk about it anymore—we can move on.

I think empathy accounts for the current anti-politically correct backlash. Folks are tired of having their feelings affirmed but their situation unchanged. Which brings me to a much older word, sympathy.

Sympathy is also a compound word from ancient Greek (sym from the Greek syn, meaning together or with, and the same root pathos), but unlike empathy, the ancient Greeks actually used the term. It seems to have arrived in English around the 1500’s. To sympathize means to be in harmony, to be alongside, the feelings or passions of another. Unlike empathy, sympathy can be affirmed. In fact, to sympathize requires proximity and clarification, because I am not sure I am with you without knowing where you happen to be. There is a significant difference between someone who “knows” how an AIDS activist “feels” and someone who stands with that activist, using the shared feeling as a motivation to bring comfort and relief. But while less distancing and significantly more helpful, the power of sympathy pales in comparison to the older truly Christian virtue of compassion.

Compassion entered the English lexicon in the 1100’s through a Latin/French journey. (French terms always strike me as more interesting that those of Germanic root.) The word speaks to the energy and motivation of one’s actions. To be moved with compassion (Latin cum and pati—to suffer, from which we get the word pity) is to find purpose and energy in the alleviation of the suffering of others. Over 21 times, Jesus was “moved with compassion” prior to healing, feeding, encouraging or otherwise saving those on whom he had pity. Compassion is not the virtue of an emotional guess; it is the action of constructive pain relief.

The growing rejection of empathy, rightfully being critiqued as a shallow sea of pointless pathos, has brought us to the place where our only arguments are about the “authenticity” of one’s feelings, not an evaluation of the impact of their action.

In the end, I fear we are becoming a culture that feels nothing, about which I pray God’s people will be moved with compassion.

Hoping my musing gives something worth using, I remain with love,

Jonathan B. Krogh

Your Pastor