The Untimely Death of Empathy

Have you ever felt like you have been hit by a bus and run over, only to have all your friends wave to you from the bus while calling out “You’re fine! Get up! This is all for the best, you know!”

That’s how I felt when my husband and I were mercilessly dismissed from our positions with a church in Nebraska. Our friends knew that my husband had been struggling for about a year with depression and bipolar disorder. They knew how working with the young people was incredibly important to him. They knew his heart was not necessarily being displayed as his illness and medications shifted and pulled on his personality. They knew.

And yet…

All it took was a new, young, very inexperienced pastor to come on staff and spread around a few spiritual clichés – like “what comes out of a man’s mouth comes from his heart” and other doubts about mental illness, along with broad generalizations about God’s will and what might be best for my family… and suddenly we were out. And not just out, but out in twenty-four hours with barely a chance to say good-bye to the young people who were like our own children.

The circumstances that still haunt me, however, are not the actual dismissal. No, what affected me even more was what I never saw coming. Friend after friend would call and want to get together for lunch or coffee and they would say “We don’t have to talk about what happened. I just want you to know I care.” Which sounds great – but imagine NOT talking about how your right arm was just ripped off and you’re bleeding all over the place. That’s how it felt. So, not talking about it just wasn’t really an option for me. However – talking about it turned out to be even worse. I would (I thought – understandably so) speak quite angrily about what had happened to us and one after one my “friends” all said basically the same thing to me: “We don’t think you did anything wrong and we’re sorry you were hurt, but we know the elders have the best interest of the church at heart and we just have to trust them. They prayed about this decision and you just need to remember that God will work it out in his time.” I haven’t spoken to most of them since.

It’s been two and a half years since then, and it still bothers me when I hear phrases of “victim-blaming”. Adding shame and guilt on top of someone’s pain is never helpful. In fact, when you stand up for the institution that abused someone, it’s like you are on a bus that hits someone and all you offer is some advice about getting up and moving on as you shout out from the window of the bus.

But why do we do it? Why did almost ALL of my friends do this? What happened to empathy?  Obviously, I can’t say for certain, but I do have some theories.

~ We want so badly to trust the institutions and the people that lead them in our lives that we will abandon all logic and turn out back on real relationships to maintain that trust.

~ We prefer to think that bad doesn’t happen randomly. In fact, a lot of us NEED to believe this is true. The phrase “there but for the grace of God go I” is rarely uttered anymore. We have insulated ourselves in our little happily-ever-after world. Accepting that real pain can come into someone’s life that did not deserve it – well that’s just not acceptable. So we hide behind phrases that either blame the person or make light of the pain – or both.

~ We think we are always supposed to be optimistic. My Gramma was the most optimistic person that ever lived. Seriously. She believed in seeing the bright side in everything, and if there wasn’t a bright said, well, she just wouldn’t talk about it. Telling someone who is in pain that there is no reason to feel like they are in pain isn’t terribly helpful. Living life as a perpetual victim is certainly not healthy, but refusing to believe that someone has any reason to see themselves as a victim will not help them move on. It could even cause them to dig in their heels to prove just how badly they were treated.

~ Some people really ARE victims. Being generally unhappy with your life, however, does not make you a victim. I think a lot of people are very unhappy with their safe existence. So unhappy, in fact, that they have no ability to have empathy for someone who is actually suffering. I have heard people make comments like “We all have issues in our lives. Some of us have older parents, some have teenagers with problems, some have financial issues – no one has a perfect life.” Thinking that your teenager staying out past curfew is the same as a young mother dying of cancer is ridiculously self-centered. Yes, we all have problems. NO, they are not all equal or the same.

~ The last theory I have for why people have so little empathy is probably the most accurate and sad. We just don’t care about each other. We want “relationships” with other people and “community” but we don’t actually want to put someone else’s needs above our own. That would just be crazy!  So it’s really a lack of real love that I believe is the issue.  Love – the kind Jesus taught about – the kind that leads you to say “There is nothing you could ever do to make me love you less.”  There’s very little of it out there.

Somehow – we have become convinced that empathy is the same thing as sympathy – and sympathy is something that you have to be very careful handing out.  People can get addicted.   But here’s something to keep in mind:

Sympathy focuses on awareness; (I understand their pain)
Empathy focuses on experience; (walk in their shoes)
Compassion focuses on action. (I need to help)

I’m not sure how or when it happened, but somehow a lot of the American church seems to have decided it’s more important to have “tough love” to help people be more independent than to have sympathy, empathy & compassion.  I just don’t see how that connects with the teachings of Jesus.  In fact, it’s just about the opposite of what he taught.


6 thoughts on “The Untimely Death of Empathy

  1. When I read about some of the miracles Jesus performed on people who had been suffering since birth (blindness, withered hand, bleeding, etc) I wonder about the empathy they received. I wonder how they were treated by the people around them, and how the individual themselves felt about their situation. When Jesus said things that indicated their sickness was to bring glory to God, I can’t comprehend that. How could I, as a person, suffer through something my entire life. Have it change my fortunes and affect the way people look at me, and then be appreciative when I am suddenly ‘fixed’!?! Why not sooner? Why would God allow something like that to happen to a human just to use if for his glory? Seems an excessively cruel way to teach a lesson!
    I agree that Jesus teachings would bring us to have more sympathy, empathy and compassion… but what about the fact that Jesus was able to get away with telling us to love the sick and poor amongst us, when He was able to just heal people or was able to make food and wine so people wouldn’t have to go buy any?
    Maybe you can tell I’m looking for some answers on chronic conditions and why suffering needs to continue when I feel like my faith should be enough to get me out of the bad dog box.
    That went sideways from your original empathy intent with this post…. sorry. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really struggled with that in teaching through the gospels. When he heals the man born blind the disciples ask if it was the man or his parents who’s sin caused his blindness. Jesus says neither – but so that God could be glorified. I choose to focus on the fact that his emphasis was on “neither”. They were so bent on believing that we cause out own issues and he was saying NO. Bad stuff happens. To all of us. But God can and will bring good out of bad. (even though the good is not what we might expect as being called “good” – like the character it builds in us to deal with pain etc.) I always have found it interesting that in other countries, when something goes wrong, people tend to pray for the strength to deal with it. In America we always want to know why it happened. We expect life to be free of pain. I totally get what you’re getting at, though. People with chronic pain or mental health issues etc. have a completely different take on life. It’s hard and it doesn’t go away. No one wants to hear those kind of stories. They aren’t “victorious”.


  3. Yesterday when I was looking up some of the examples of the miracles I mentioned in the previous comment, I ran across John 5. One of my favorite stories in the NT because there is a pool, and an angel stirs the water and then first to touch the water gets healed. Seriously, an angel stirs the water – and everyone treats that like normal! But what I noticed was verse 14, “Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” I’m sure there are many ways that verse could be interpreted, and it probably needs to be parsed down to the original Greek before really debated, but face value ESV seems to point towards sin being the reason for his 38 year malady.


    • Here’s my take on this story. When this man is questioned about why he’s carrying his mat he immediately throws Jesus under the bus (“he told me to do it”). Going back to the man born blind he was willing to be thrown out of the temple for jesus. So he was afraid. Fear leads to selfishness / self preservation which is the definition of sin. Any unloving self centered behavior is what sin is. A life of self centered behavior is worse than being physically crippled. Thus the statement. In other words – watch out for a bad attitude because it ruins your life.


  4. And one more thing … I don’t understand why some people suffer with chronic pain or other chronic issues but I know people who suffer are far more empathetic and focused on loving for the most part. It’s a hard pill to swallow but pain is what makes character.


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