The Trouble With Empathy


The lion chases a bunny.  It hasn’t eaten for days.  It is hungry.

Case 1:  If you’ve just watched The Lion King, you’ll empathise with the lion.  You don’t like the feeling of hunger too.  The nameless bunny is food!

Case 2:  If you’ve just watched Peter Rabbit, you’ll want the bunny to escape because you empathise with it.  It doesn’t deserve to die.  The lion can go hungry, you don’t care.

Case 3:  Bunnies are cute and cuddly pets.  You won’t know how anyone could hate them until you see a field full of wild bunnies.  After that, you will better empathise with the farmer who want them dead because bunnies burrow his land and damage his crop.  The poor farmer has a family to feed. His children don’t deserve to go hungry.

Was the bunny the food, the celebrity or the pest?  Did you find your empathy roving around the lion, the bunny and the farmer?  If you did, then you are experiencing the trouble with empathy.

Empathy relies on feelings, which are unstable and unreliable.  In the first place, you can NEVER empathise with a lion or bunny because you’ve never been one.  What about empathy for another human being?

In order to feel what another person feels,  you will have to have exactly the same past as him or her. You’ll need be born in the same year, be of the same sex, raised by the same people, play the same games, eat the same food.  Is that possible?  If not, then it is impossible for you to ever empathise with anyone on this earth, because everyone is unique.  You can relate to experiences of others, or guess how they feel, but you can never empathise with unique individuals.  In this sense, empathy is simply an idea, a hoax.

If you teach your children to have empathy, you burden them unnecessarily with the impossible task of trying to feel the feelings of others.  They will grow up confused.

Teach compassion instead.  Oxford Dictionary defines compassion as
“sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.”  Christian scripture has much to say about compassion, and nothing to say about empathy.  Have a read!

By the way, compassion is an uncountable noun.  Some things in life just cannot be measured.