The Danger of Empathy
“I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves. And then, in that very moment when I love them....I destroy them.”
Once, at Socrates’ Café, a discussion group at my college, we talked about which superpower we would rather have: truth or empathy. Truth meant that, when touching someone, they could not lie to you. Empathy meant that by touching someone you could either let them feel your emotions or feel their emotions yourself.
I lobbied pretty hard for empathy, because I thought I would use the truth ability in the wrong ways and for the wrong reasons. I was probably right about that. I also said that empathy would force me to see people as victims with stories, to understand why they do the things they do. Maybe I was right about that too.
But, when I read Ender’s Game a month or so later, I realized something else: if the truth ability would corrupt me, the empathy gift would crush me. What happened to Ender showed that pretty clearly. We can’t take on emotions that aren’t our own. We have a limited capacity for love, and too many things are broken. It would kill us.
There was a time my freshman year of college where I absolutely refused to sing “It Is Well with My Soul.” Partly because some people I cared about were going through a hard time, and partly because it was Social Justice Week. (It is not the intention of this week to overwhelm you with all the suffering of the world—from starvation to sex trafficking to domestic violence—but that does tend to happen.)
How I dealt with this is a long story that I’ve already told once. But the short of it is that I realized we can’t love the whole world. We have to settle for loving our neighbor, and that’s all that God asked of us in the first place.