Fear and Assumptions, Or What Empathy is Not

In last week’s Democratic primary debate, Sen. Cory Booker cited the “crisis of empathy” in our body politic, a crisis of waiting too long to act, of not getting riled up until the negative consequences of tragedy land in our own backyards, of needing to be personally affected before we’re spurred to action. He was speaking to the calamity of gun violence; I was reminded, too, of the way that (male) politicians will so often cite their wives and daughters as reasons to stop violence against women or express outrage at despicable things said on the public record. Too often, when we express sentiments of empathy or concern, what we’re really voicing is fear. Fear that the horrible thing could happen to us. Fear that people we know and love could be affected. Fear that our bubble of safety might be pierced by the dangers we thought were far away. It’s our fear that drives our outrage. And our fear is interested only in serving our self interest – in protecting ourselves. This is not empathy – at least not the empathy educators and activists (and Sen. Booker) tout as the saving grace to our current social and political climes.

There are those that have called for moving away from – or, more accurately, beyond – empathy as a goal. Robert Sapolsky, whom I was lucky enough to hear speak on this exact issue at a professional development day at one of my previous schools, writes about how, on a neurological level, empathy is in fact antithetical to the real goal of human caring, which is compassionate action. Empathy, he explains, is based in an amygdalar response, a firing of the limbic system that triggers our sympathetic nervous system, raising our heartrates and our hackles, putting us into fight-flight-or-freeze mode. We physiologically respond with self-protection, not compassionate action. Sapolsky advocates a compassionate non-attachment to the ills of the world, similar to Buddhist, Jain, and Daoist philosophies. If we can keep our amygdala out of it, he reasons, we can respond with action that benefits others, not just ourselves.

Sapolsky points to Bill Gates as an example of intellectualized compassionate action, someone who sees pain in the world and rigorously tries to ameliorate it. But you can’t be effective without empathy – as the Gates Foundation’s failed Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching interventions show. Two of the key missteps? Failing to anticipate educator response to externally mandated change and neglecting the myriad social, emotional, and situational factors that impact student performance. In short: empathy.

So how do we find the middle ground between the parent whose concern for their own child overwhelms their ability to respond compassionately and the do-gooder whose compassionate concern overwhelms their ability to see other humans as more than problems to be fixed? How do we create compassionate, action-oriented humans? And how do we keep them from vilifying those they purport to help?

Leading with assumptions rather than questions will never be successful. To find the balance between empathy and compassionate action – to practice effective empathy – we need to return to the difference between inclusion and belonging. Effective empathy is never prescriptive. Effective empathy is inquisitive. Effective empathy is about wanting to know, and then to know more. Effective empathy is about seeing ourselves in others and others in ourselves – normalizing emotion and need, creating community, and lifting both self-esteem and regard for others. In school settings, basic interventions – journaling, reflecting on emotions, reappraising negative emotions as normal or expected – can increase not just a sense of belonging and self-regard (essential ingredients for effective empathy) but student performance as well.

We need to be critical and intentional in our application of empathy. It’s not enough to feel emotions on someone else’s behalf – that only puts our guard up. And it’s not enough to translate human pain into problems to be solved or jobs to do – that invariably dehumanizes those who suffer and perpetuates the problems we set out to solve in the first place. The good news is that we can do both - we can feel someone else’s pain, our amygdalas kicking into high gear, and we can name, defuse, and channel that emotion, our prefrontal cortex firing up and taking control.

Next week, we talk about how that cognitive reappraisal works and how we can help ourselves and others (especially kids and adolescents, whose prefrontal cortices are still developing) do it better.