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Image: Levi Hastings

“At least you didn’t have to miss work.” I overheard a well-meaning friend offer these words of comfort to someone who had just shared that they had spent all of winter break on the couch with a stomach virus. “At least” comments are ubiquitous, and unfortunately they tactlessly offer little comfort. They are an emotionless judgment lacking empathy.

Dr. Brene Brown is not a fan. With her short video on empathy, Brown changed my life. Empathy, she explains, is feeling with people and creating sacred space to connect with others. It is a profoundly vulnerable choice. To our virus-stricken friend we might instead say, “it sounds like you had a disappointing vacation — I know you were looking forward to having some time off.” Be there, listen and let them know you are hearing them. This is what friends do.

You can’t go wrong with empathy, right? Well, here comes Paul Bloom, who contends in his new book, Against Empathy — The Case for Rational Compassion, that empathy is not only highly overrated, but it is in fact illogical. He is opposed to the current focus among psychologists and educators who feel that it is critical to cultivate empathy in children and society. Bloom contends that identifying too closely with others triggers emotions, which in turn, hinders the more preferred rational response that he thinks is superior.

Bloom, a Yale University psychology professor, draws on science, literature, philosophy, and current events to build his case. “Empathy is a spotlight focusing on certain people in the here and now. This makes us care more about them, but it leaves us insensitive to the long-term consequences of our acts and blind as well to the suffering of those we do not or cannot empathize with.... It is shortsighted, motivating actions that might make things better in the short term but lead to tragic results in the future.... It is corrosive in personal relationships; it exhausts the spirit and can diminish the force of kindness and love.”

Yes, you read correctly, empathy actually complicates the delivery of compassion and kindness. When we feel empathy we are deeply feeling the hurt of the other. This “act of coming to experience the world as you think someone else does” disables us and prevents us from responding appropriately. The preferable “cognitive empathy” involves standing at a distance, carefully weighing, measuring, and using a wide lens.

Brown vs. Bloom: What to do? Here’s my proposal. For everyday life, let’s go with Brown. Empathy is critical to building relationships with family and friends and to our own soul-expansion. Pirke Avot urges us to “carry the burden of the other.” Mussar, Jewish ethics, teaches us to deeply reflect on the motivations and the experiences of others before we judge them.

At the same time, Bloom’s approach is not new. Jewish law outlines intricate systems for determining the laws of tzedakah (giving) and precedence when it comes to allocating resources and addressing intricate ethical dilemmas. Leaders, professionals, and community members must be adept at handling ethical conflicts and applying “rational compassion” to deal with these multifaceted situations and needs. For them, Bloom’s Against Empathy is a must. They have the responsibility to go beyond “I feel your pain.” They are required to take ethically driven actions and form morally balanced judgments. 

For everyday life, the cultivation of rich friendships, and meaningful family ties — and building a robust inner life — I vote for Brown. As in Fiddler on the Roof, however, they can both be right. 

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