It is December 4, 2016. Three days ago my mother-in-law passed away, at 92, after a very long, slow degrade from a number of ailments. We celebrate the life she lived, the friends and the emotional connections she made with just about anyone she came in contact with, albeit in the grocery store line or as a volunteer at the White Elephant Sale in Oakland. But what made her most special was her empathy gene. I always joked she was a hypochondriac, but in reflection, she was sick about the people that suffered around her - she was special in that way. Her husband (my husband Dave's father) was killed by a train when Dave was 8 years old (imagine raising two boys by yourself, working to put them through private school, and college and watching them succeed and raise their own children and grandchildren). Through her working life at Kaiser, until aged 65, Betty spent the remainder of her retired life as a volunteer via many organizations and taking care of those that ailed. That was Betty, she was a student of empathy and compassion.
I stumbled upon an essay in the Dec 2nd Wall Street Journal titled "The Perils of Empathy" by Dr. Paul Bloom. I'll admit an excellent and timely headline, his thoughts dove into the perils of empathy and how compassion is actually the better way to approach the world. Dr. Bloom defined empathy into two types: Emotional and Cognitive Empathy. Cognitive is the kind one feels to understand another person's viewpoint (we do that all the time in marketing - account planning, etc...). Emotional empathy is when we actually feel someone else's pain. I felt that way seeing immigrants in Aleppo (for example). Dr. Bloom makes the point that emotional empathy, although a very important ability to feel for others and vitally important to understanding others, can also lead to bias in how we feel for others. Through many examples he explains that depending on which side of the coin we sit, which perspective we bring to the situation, our empathy can incorrectly bias us about others. To quote Dr. Bloom:
"As a candidate, even Donald Trump asked Americans to identify with the suffering of others, from displaced Rust Belt factory workers to the victims of crime by undocumented immigrants. Though there are obvious ideological differences over who deserves our empathy, it is one of the rare political sentiments that still command a wide consensus. And that’s a shame, because when it comes to guiding our decisions, empathy is a moral train wreck. It makes the world worse. When we have the good sense to set it aside, we are better people and make better policy."
Dr. Bloom makes the strong case in this article that empathy can lead to biases and ultimately it can wear us out, emotionally and physically. I see a lot of that in my Facebook feed specifically with the outcome of the Presidency, where the sadness and anger continues to play out. He notes there are studies that prove that compassion instead of empathy is a more powerful construct. Compassion is the idea of forwarding good will, good thoughts and positive energy versus needing to feel people's pain. We gain compassion through a meditative state as we reflect on ourselves, versus the empathy of putting ourselves in others' shoes. To quote Dr. Bloom again:
"These studies also revealed practical differences between empathy and compassion. Empathy was difficult and unpleasant—it wore people out. This is consistent with other findings suggesting that vicarious suffering not only leads to bad decision-making but also causes burnout and withdrawal. Compassion training, by contrast, led to better feelings on the part of the meditator and kinder behavior toward others. It has all the benefits of empathy and few of the costs."
Bottom line, empathy allows us to feel "with" someone. Compassion allows us to feel "for" someone (cause us to take another action). Through his stated studies of the brain, empathy highlights the negative zones, compassion highlights the positive, reward side of our brains.
If compassion make us spread positivity faster than feeling empathy in a social media world that continues to get more vicious, judgmental and biased I'm all for it. And if we all start to meditate a little (my Yoga class today was a bit more meaningful than usual as I transferred my thoughts from body alignment to emotional alignment) we might produce a better collective consciousness than if we strictly hold true to feeling empathy.
But at the end of the day, and the end of 2016, I won't forget the enduring empathy Betty was driven by through her 92 years, because it made her someone that everyone loved and someone we'll miss every single day. Empathy + compassion seems like the right formula, versus one over the other. For 2017, this will be a top-of-the-list reminder for me that loving kindness starts with empathy but works toward a better place for both you and the person you are caring for, with a dose of compassion.
Here's the full WSJ essay by Dr. Bloom (inside a paid wall): http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-perils-of-empathy-1480689513