The first time I learned about empathy was in fourth grade. My teacher defined it as the ability to walk a mile in another person’s shoes. Actually, we were studying American Indian history at the time, so she quoted this proverb: “Never criticize a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.”
My fourth grade obsession with Native Americans aside, I loved this definition. For years I aspired to it. Empathy, I believed, meant being able to understand or relate to the suffering of others. Empathy was the ultimate virtue, one that equipped you to enter the pain of another person.
But is that true?
Lately I’ve been rethinking empathy and its relationship to compassion—specifically, which is the better response to suffering?
My struggle to define these words took on real-life weight when I traveled to Thailand with Nations. Our team spent two nights in Pattaya’s red light district, talking with women who work in local bars and brothels. As I learned about the burdens they carry, my empathy seemed hugely inadequate.
If empathy means understanding what someone else is going through, it can’t get us very far. No matter how good my imagination or how deep my sympathy, I’ll never truly understand what these women are up against. I can’t know what it’s like to grow up in a poor rural community and be forced into prostitution to provide for my kids. I just can’t—and to claim otherwise seems dangerous. It seems like appropriation, taking on another person’s suffering when I haven’t earned the right to carry it.
This doesn’t mean empathy isn’t good and necessary—it is! But I think compassion is better. Sometimes “I’m sorry” is a more loving response than “Me too.”
Several years ago, Leslie Jamison published a collection of essays called The Empathy Exams. In the opening essay she writes, “Empathy is always perched precariously between gift and invasion.” By this I think she means that empathy requires a big dose of humility, and knowing that you do not know. It requires close listening and attention. It requires asking to hear people’s stories—especially people who don’t often get to share them.
“You’re just a tourist inside someone else’s suffering until you can’t get it out of your head; until you take it home with you—across a freeway, or a country, or an ocean,” Jamison writes. Another way to say this: empathy can stall out at tourism or worse, voyeurism, unless it leads you into compassion. While empathy is important, it shouldn’t be our end goal.
And that’s where compassion comes in, a gift that takes empathy one step further. The Latin roots of the word mean “to suffer together,” and I think this is key to our understanding of compassion, especially biblical compassion.
Compassion is only possible—and effective—when we see ourselves as poor and wounded. We can only suffer with others if we understand that we are equally in need of healing. Jesuit priest Gregory Boyle writes, “Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a covenant between equals.” The Gospel, strange good news that tells us we are both broken and healed, makes compassion not just possible but likely. It makes it our daily stance.
Defining empathy and compassion is not an either/or question. Empathy can lead us into compassion, and compassion can lead us into solidarity. As journalist Krista Tippet put it, “Compassion is rarely a solution, but it is always a sign of a deeper reality.” Standing in solidarity with those who suffer won’t take away their pain, but it can point back to the God who suffers with us and who will, one day, fully erase suffering.