The limits of empathy

This past week, I had the opportunity to hear a pitch for a fellowship that focuses on developing community leaders for the work of social transformation. It was more inspiring than it sounds. At the hart of the fellowship was the idea of empathy, or, as Oxford defines it, the ability to understand and share the feelings of others.

I could not help but relate this emphasis on empathy to the other events of this past week, specifically to the murder of six Asian-American women in Georgia, and the greater revelation of the scale of hate crimes faced by Asians/Asian-Americans in the United States. In response to the tragedy, I drafted a solidarity statement on behalf of the leadership of the North Bay Organizing Project. After the statement was edited, I posted it on my social media account, hoping that the language might be helpful for other people and organizations who were trying to express solidarity.

I don’t know if it was, and it doesn’t really matter. Because my hope for additional solidarity was quickly eclipse by another kind of response.

How about “it shouldn’t have to happen to you for you to admit that it exists”?

Within an hour of my post, several (white) people commented on my post saying that this wasn’t a hate crime. Instead, they focused on how the shooter was driven by lust. I deleted the comments immediately, simply because I didn’t want to risk my Asian-American friends reading such minimization of harm on my social media account. There is much that can be said about how that lust was fueled by the exotification and commodification of women of Asian descent, who are most likely to be the victims of hate crimes against Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders, but at the heart of those comments was the denial (by white people) that racism exists. And it made me wonder anew: What happens when we can’t really understand or share the feelings of the other?

The first thing we may do is deny that those feelings exist, or that they are rooted in any form of reality. I could write at length about someone who has never been the victim of a hate crime saying that there is no such thing as a hate crime. Or someone daring to imagine that hate crimes against Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders don’t exist when, yesterday in Los Angeles, a crazed motorist drove through a protest against hate crimes, saying “F*** China!”

But to focus too much on that would risk the old “looking to the splinter in my neighbor’s eye” thing that Jesus warns us against. Because while I do not deny that the murder of the six women in Georgia was a hate crime, I inadvertently glossed over the tragedy in a rush to connect it to an experience that I could share. When talking with a friend this weekend, I likened the anti-Asian hate crimes to the Pulse Nightclub Massacre, in which 49 LGBTQAI+ people lost their lives. While that mass shooting was also tragic, and was unsettling for me as an LGBTQAI+ identified person, this comparison is, at best, unhelpful, and, at worst, quite harmful.

The discrimination and violence faced by Asian-Americans in the United States is unique from that faced by LGBTQAI+ people. Moreover, even the framing of these groups as two separate communities causes additional erasure of the most vulnerable Asian-American folks, because it is LGBTQAI+ people of color (including Asian-Americans) who are most likely to face this particular type of hate-driven violence in the United States. (The vast majority of the victims at Pulse were people of color.) And, perhaps most importantly, in this moment it is the Asian-American community that is hurting. There is no need to relate this pain to pain that I have suffered. And this is the limit of empathy: Not only do I not need to share the feelings of the other in order to believe that they exist, I do not need to fully understand the feelings of the other in order to offer my support to them.

We know this implicitly on a micro level. I served as a caregiver for someone with a disability, even though I have always been able-bodied. I tutored someone for whom English is a second language, even though I know English as a native speaker. You have, perhaps, walked with someone who was undergoing chemo, even though you may not have had cancer. Or maybe you have accompanied someone through the 12-Step process, even though you have never struggled with addiction. This is not empathy. This is compassion.

Compassion (literally “to suffer with”) does not emphasize the need to understand or share feelings. Rather, Oxford English dictionary defines compassion as “concern for the suffering of others”. Miriam-Webster goes further, suggesting that compassion also comes with “a desire to alleviate the other’s suffering”. Compassion does not explain away the harm. Compassion is no afraid to acknowledge past complicity and complacency, for the sake of doing better. Compassion says, I can’t imagine. Compassion says, I need to listen and learn more. Compassion says, I want to know how you want me to support you, and I will commit myself to doing that thing.

Brother Henri Nouwen writes, Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of painCompassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless.

If we know the story of the Gospel, then we know that Nouwen’s words are a most succinct expression of the life, death, ministry, and message of Jesus. It is compassion, and not empathy, that is the ultimate expression of Christ on earth. Therefore, those of us who claim to follow Christ must commit ourselves (anew, again, and always) to walk in greater compassion. I, as a white person, need to apply the compassion that comes easily to me in interpersonal interactions to the wider scope of my influence.

We, who are quick to perform acts of kindness to the individuals around us, need to also act with compassion in response to this moment of racial reckoning in our nation. Instead of rushing to connect the suffering of others to our own lived experience, we need to sit with the pain being expressed in this moment. Instead of spouting off quick comparisons and solutions, we need to be willing to ask, What would you have me do? And then, we need listen. We need to listen to the voices of our Asian-American/Pacific Islander and BIPOC friends. We need to listen to the voices of leadership from these communities. And we need to acknowledge that this work of reckoning, reparation, and (later) reconciliation, will take a long time.

Perhaps, it will take even the sum of our whole lives. But as Nouwen continues, Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human. And so, committing ourselves to growing in compassion is simply committing to life itself.

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