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A bridled horse pulls against its restraints representing empathy in modern culture

Bridle Your Empathy So That You Can Truly Love

Modern culture elevates empathy, but at what cost? A deep dive reveals its selective nature, its misuse in politics, and the danger of uncritical adoration. Rather, true virtue lies in charity.
…the most deleterious effect of empathy’s subversion on leaders is more fundamental. It has to do with the way we conceptualize the forces of light and darkness. The focus on empathy rather than responsibility has contributed to a major misorientation in our society about the nature of what is toxic to life itself and, therefore, the factors that go into survival.

-Rabbi Edwin Friedman, A Failure of Nerve

In a recent professional undertaking, I was reminded of the remarkable and disproportionate elevation of the virtue of empathy in modern culture. In the field of project management, we focus on three elements of any project: schedule, scope, and cost. All of our activity is designed to ensure that any project in which we participate is completed on time; at the right level of features and quality; and within budget. Yet, in a recent professional development activity, I was informed that empathy is now another dimension of project management. So now, along with PERT analysis, Monte Carlo simulations, resource modeling, and the other quantitative tools of the discipline, we now have the empathetic analysis of project data?

In The Case Against Empathy, psychologist Paul Bloom reminds readers of Bill Clinton’s famous statement, “I feel your pain,” which, for many, marks an inflection point in American culture. Clinton’s statement was more problematic than we might tend to assume. For example, if I, as a political candidate, declare that I am uniquely qualified to serve in office because I can feel my constituents’ pain, there exists in that claim an implicit accusation: my opponent is unqualified to serve because s/he cannot feel their pain. And this inability to feel amounts to a moral failing or a character deficiency.

Empathy is selective.

But in his analysis, Bloom points out that empathy is selective; it is something that we feel toward some people and not others, based on criteria that are often dishonest and selfish. During the reckonings of the MeToo movement, for example, there was a pronounced lack of empathetic attention to victims of the misconduct of Bill Clinton. Politicians can exploit most any human experience to their advantage, including the reality of selective empathy.

Fritz Breithaupt explores this in his fascinating book The Dark Sides of Empathy, but using Donald Trump as an example. Without going into the particulars of this argument, we can make a general statement that applies across the political spectrum. When a politician develops a martyr complex, he will likely offer voters a victim narrative along the lines of look at how poorly I am treated, all because I’m just trying to help you. A manipulative appeal to empathy is very effective for galvanizing personal loyalty among voters.

G. K. Chesterton’s observation about the loss of traditional faith goes a long way to explain our current relationship to empathy in Western societies:

The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.

Almost all modern superhero movies reflect Chesterton’s observation, and it comes in the initial moment when the hero discovers their power. Having not yet developed the ability to understand and channel it, they usually start to wreak destructive havoc on their surroundings and relationships. These stories become socially useful when they depict the superhero developing wisdom in the face of real dilemmas and tensions around how and when to exercise their powers. Those plot points serve a purpose that biblical religion used to serve, calibrating our expectations for life in such a way that we are less likely to fall to pieces emotionally when faced with situations of moral and ethical ambiguity. Ideally, we learn in these stories that many gifts (like superpowers or empathy) can also be a curse, and whether they are one or the other depends on our maturity, on our ability to exercise wisdom.

Traditional religious faith puts virtues like empathy in the right relationship to other virtues like honesty, discipline, moderation, and more. And without the other virtues, empathy tends to suffer from an honesty problem. We see this in the empathy-fueled arguments for same-sex marriage, where the empathy suddenly disappears as children born to same-sex couples via surrogacy voice their profound sadness at being denied a mother or father from birth. Loud public performances of empathy for people with gender dysphoria suddenly turn silent when women lament their losses of scholarships and earnings to biological male athletes. A major reason for the rightward turn in European politics has to do with the fact that empathy for immigrants is often voiced in the halls of the European Union headquarters in Brussels, without a corresponding empathy for communities that have been upended by problems that have come with generous border policies.

This selectivity also applies to religious appeals to empathy. Among Christians and former believers, it is not uncommon to hear Jesus described as if He simply sauntered around ancient Judea, just empathizing. In fact, the opposite of empathy is found in the statement, “Let the dead bury their dead,” and in Jesus’ terse reply to John the Baptist as Jesus’ confused and distraught cousin awaited his fate in prison. We only arrive at the caricature of Jesus-as-ancient-empathizer by ignoring the many instances where He demonstrated pure, unsentimental commitment to principle, offending and dividing people all across the socioeconomic and ideological spectrums. When religious proponents of empathy engage in sentimental pretense about Jesus, it is another manifestation of empathy’s honesty problem.

For Latter-day Saints, in particular, the need for a properly calibrated and principled empathy comes from theological understandings that stretch even further into the past. The satanic declaration “one soul shall not be lost” should be regarded as the first weaponization of empathy, a sentimental proposal that carries an embedded accusation. After all, if one system of salvation involves risk and suffering and disparate outcomes, would it not be more empathetic to implement and enforce a system that involves none of those things? And where is the empathy in excluding a third of one’s offspring? In scripture, we hear distant echoes of the accuser’s use of empathy to poison the spiritual intuitions of God’s children. 

Also in scripture, we are told that one of the paradigms of hell is to “love and make a lie.” This does not mean claiming we have finished our math homework when we really haven’t. It is a deeper principle, addressing our very relationship to reality. Unprincipled empathy leads us to validate one another’s delusions, often with severe consequences. We read of the story of a young woman who felt like she should have been born blind, and then in an attempt to fulfill her inner narrative of embodiment, she found an affirming therapist empathetic enough to help her pour drain cleaner into her eyes. The therapist probably thought they were being loving in this situation, but it was really just codependency, the counterfeit of love that prevails in hell. On a larger scale, we read of a Khmer Rouge leader who helped oversee the deaths of up to a quarter of Cambodia’s population, appealing to empathy as his actions were only undertaken in the pursuit of social justice. Years ago, I wrote of similar dynamics in Maoist China, where the horrors of the Cultural Revolution were motivated by an unbounded empathy for the oppressed.

Empathy is the New Sacred Thing, not to be questioned.

Why are people so reluctant to acknowledge how empathy lies at the center of so many personal and civilizational horror stories?

One reason is that among the formerly-believing, empathy has come to fill a role in their life that used to be filled by the religious concept of righteousness, of alignment with God’s purposes. For many, empathy is the New Sacred Thing, not to be questioned or subject to normal kinds of scrutiny. In the words of Rabbi Edwin Friedman, “…empathy has achieved such inviolable, holy status in the thinking of some that to even question its value will be considered as irreverent, if not sacrilegious, as denying the Trinity or cursing the Land of Israel.”  Another reason is that to bridle our empathy—to really interrogate and understand and channel and discipline it—requires spiritual growth that is often profoundly difficult. In our relationships, the bridling of empathy requires a willingness to sometimes be told the hurtful accusation that we are not loving enough or caring enough. To bridle our empathy means resisting codependent relationships with people and groups, where empathy is so often the emotional currency that constitutes the price of participation.

As Patricia Snow wrote years ago in a remarkable article, empathy is not charity. Charity is the divine love that we should be seeking to integrate into the core of our beings, and it is a multifaceted love that is bounded and educated by principles. Numerous prophets and great saints have both taught and modeled Christian love, including its important dimension of empathy. For believers, the exercise of honest, principled, bridled empathy can be a way to highlight important distinctions between charity based in the gospel versus the secular sentimental paradigm of love that is always leaving trails of emotional and spiritual wreckage in its wake.

About the author

Dan Ellsworth

Dan Ellsworth is a consultant in Charlottesville, VA, and host of the YouTube channel Latter-day Presentations.
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