Empathy and Compassion

January 14, 2024
Photo by Dimitar Dimitrov/Pexels.com

Recognize the difference between empathy and compassion.

The latter is a feeling we don’t need to ration,

unlike empathy for the supporters of Hamas,

who’re victims whose collateral damage, alas,

is transformed by these terrorists to a weapon

that diverts sympathy for Israel to them, side-steppin’

the fact that pain that Gazan victims suffer was initiated

by Hamas leaders who most violently vitiated

a peace with Israel that for them was problematic,

since it was not with sympathy towards them symptomatic.


Pragmatically and accurately they predicted

that all harm that they’d hatefully inflicted

on Israel would generate retaliation which would lead

to empathy for collateral victims Israel caused to bleed.

Weaponized by Hamas, this empathy has been

the ace in their hell hole, fanatically by them foreseen.


In “That Numbness You’re Feeling? There’s a Word for It,” NYT, 1/1/24, Adam Grant writes:

In mid-October, a few days after the attack on Israel, a friend sent me a text from a rabbi. She said she couldn’t look away from the horror on the news but felt completely numb. She was struggling to feel even the tiniest bit useful: “What can I even do?”

Many people are feeling similarly defeated, and many others are outraged by the political inaction that ensues. A Muslim colleague of mine said she was appalled to see so much indifference to the atrocities and innocent lives lost in Gaza and Israel. How could anyone just go on as if nothing had happened?

A common conclusion is that people just don’t care. But inaction isn’t always caused by apathy. It can also be the product of empathy. More specifically, it can be the result of what psychologists call empathic distress: hurting for others while feeling unable to help.

I felt it intensely this fall, as violence escalated abroad and anger echoed across the United States. Helpless as a teacher, unsure of how to protect my students from hostility and hate. Useless as a psychologist and writer, finding words too empty to offer any hope. Powerless as a parent, searching for ways to reassure my kids that the world is a safe place and most people are good. Soon I found myself avoiding the news altogether and changing the subject when war came up. Understanding how empathy can immobilize us like that is a critical step for helping others — and ourselves.

Empathic distress explains why many people have checked out in the wake of these tragedies. The small gestures they could make seem like an exercise in futility. Giving to charity feels like a drop in the ocean. Posting on social media is poking a hornet’s nest. Having concluded that nothing they do will make a difference, they start to become indifferent.

The symptoms of empathic distress were originally diagnosed in health care, with nurses and doctors who appeared to become insensitive to the pain of their patients. Early researchers labeled it compassion fatigue and described it as the cost of caring. The theory was that seeing so much suffering is a form of vicarious trauma that depletes us until we no longer have enough energy to care.

But when two neuroscientists, Olga Klimecki and Tania Singer, reviewed the evidence, they discovered that “compassion fatigue” is a misnomer. Caring itself is not costly. What drains people is not merely witnessing others’ pain but feeling incapable of alleviating it. In times of sustained anguish, empathy is a recipe for more distress, and in some cases even depression. What we need instead is compassion.

Although they’re often used interchangeably, empathy and compassion aren’t the same. Empathy absorbs others’ emotions as your own: “I’m hurting for you.” Compassion focuses your action on their emotions: “I see that you’re hurting, and I’m here for you.”

That’s a big difference. “Empathy is biased,” the psychologist Paul Bloom writes. It’s something we usually reserve for our own group, and in that sense, it can even be “a powerful force for war and atrocity.”

Gershon Hepner is a poet who has written over 25,000 poems on subjects ranging from music to literature, politics to Torah. He grew up in England and moved to Los Angeles in 1976. Using his varied interests and experiences, he has authored dozens of papers in medical and academic journals, and authored “Legal Friction: Law, Narrative, and Identity Politics in Biblical Israel.” He can be reached at gershonhepner@gmail.com.

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