Empathy, Compassion, and 9/11

I had a conversation with a neighbor a few days ago. He was relaxing on a zero gravity chair on a beautiful early summer evening. I stopped to say hi. He stopped to let me know about all the trouble in the world.

His golf game hadn’t gone well. Neither had Texas. Police weren’t doing their job, people were losing everything in floods in New York.

I was reminded of visits to my father’s aunt’s house when I  was young. She lived in a Chicago suburb similar to the one we lived in. The only difference was that she obsessed over crime reporting and was afraid to leave her house.

Temper Your Empathy, Train Your Compassion

The next day I re-listened to an interview with Rutger Bregman, author of on The One You Feed. Humankind: A Hopeful History. The part about empathy and compassion starts at 45:02 if you’d like to listen. Here’s my paraphrase/condensation of Bregman’s answer. 

When I use the word empathy, what I mean is this capacity that humans have to imagine ourselves in someone else’s shoes, to really feel on an emotional/mental level what other people are feeling.

And a lot of people think that empathy is the solution to so many of our problems. And for a long time I also believed that indeed empathy is the answer, but I changed my mind.

What Paul Bloom shows in the book Against Empathy is that empathy is not some light that lights up the world and lets you see everything clearly, it’s more like a spotlight or searchlight that helps you focus on one person or one group while the rest of the world fades into the background.

Why is it problematic? Because we just give too much attention then to that one person or one group.

If you think about the Middle East, for example, in many ways, there’s too much empathy there and not enough distanced rational compassion where people try to zoom out a little bit. What happens? The  Palestinians commit an attack and there are victims on the Israeli side and there’s obviously a lot of empathy for the victims. People who feel more empathy want more vengeance. So there’s an attack from the Israelis on the Palestinians and there are again a lot of casualties. And people feel a lot of empathy for the victims and it goes on and on and on.

So the problem there is not a lack of empathy. People feel  an ENORMOUS amount of empathy for the victims. ENORMOUS! and that’s why  they want action.

What happened after 9/11 in the US? It was like a TSUNAMI of empathy. And we all know what happened after that.

What we need here is something different.

What scientists have shown us is that there is a really  distinct phenomenon that we call compassion. We can even see it in the  brain. When people feel compassion, a different part of the brain lights  up.

As a parent, when your kid is afraid of the dark, you  don’t want to feel empathy. You don’t want to be afraid of the dark as  well. You just want to sit next to the kid and comfort the kid and say  look, it’s fine, you don’t have to worry about that. There are no  monsters underneath your bed, check it out, see, no monsters at all.  That’s more the compassionate approach.

It’s more distant. It’s a bit more rational as well. You  care about the person you want to help, so it’s also about love. You  don’t allow yourself to be swept away by the suffering and the fear and  the feelings of someone else. You recognize, “Look, what you feel is  what you feel, and I recognize it and I see you and I want to help you  with it but it’s not what I feel.”

The Co-Rumination Trap

Revisiting Bregman reminded me of a section from Ethan Kross’s book Chatter, on working with the voice in our heads:

To demonstrate that they are there to offer emotional  support, people are usually motivated to find out exactly what happened  to upset us—the who-what-when-where-why of the problem. They ask us to  relate what we felt and tell them in detail what occurred. And though  they may nod and communicate empathy when we narrate what happened, this  commonly results in leading us to relive the very feelings and  experiences that have driven us to seek out support in the first place, a  phenomenon called co-rumination. Co-rumination is the crucial juncture  where support subtly becomes egging on. People who care about us prompt  us to talk more about our negative experience, which leads us to become  more upset, which then leads them to ask still more questions. A vicious  cycle ensues, one that is all too easy to get sucked into, especially  because it is driven by good intentions.

The most effective verbal exchanges are those that  integrate both the social and the cognitive needs of the person seeking  support. The interlocutor ideally acknowledges the person’s feelings and  reflections, but then helps her put the situation in perspective. The  advantage of such approaches is that you’re able to make people who are  upset feel validated and connected, yet you can then pivot to providing  them with the kind of big-picture advice that you, as someone who is not  immersed in their chatter, are uniquely equipped to provide. Indeed,  the latter task is critical for helping people harness their inner voice  in ways that lead them to experience less chatter over time.

Time, of course, plays a role in our ability to offer  perspective-broadening support to the people in our lives. Studies  consistently show that people prefer to not cognitively reframe their  feelings during the very height of an emotional experience when emotions  are worked up; they choose to engage in more intellectual forms of  interventions later on. This is where a certain art in talking to other  people comes into play, because you must walk a tightrope to take upset  people from addressing their emotional needs to the more practical  cognitive ones.

Compassionate Conclusion

I agreed with my neighbor that terrible things happened to  people every day. I also said that for every terrible thing there are  countless acts of kindness. I asked him which anonymous act of kindness  he wanted to perform. He mentioned his work with the Oregon Food Bank  but had to cut our conversation short. It was coming up on 7:00 p.m. and  he and his neighbor rang a tribute to essential workers to show their  appreciation during the pandemic.

What act of kindness would you like to perform? Please share in the comments.

Photo by Liza Summer from Pexels

Author: Bruce Cantwell

Writer, journalist and long-time mindfulness practitioner.