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The Natural Empath Meets the Good Samaritan

A person can regulate his or her empathy up or down by crossing the street. The empathy lesson is that if you can cross the street to avoid the beggar, regulating your empathy down, then you can cross the street (as well as use other methods) to expand your empathy, regulating it upward. So don’t tell me that empathy cannot be dialed up or dialed down with practice. That’s the point: practice.

Crossing the street is what happened in another story with which many readers are already familiar. The story of the Good Samaritan, one of the parables of Jesus of Nazareth, tells of two people who crossed the street, and one who did not. In the story, a traveler was waylaid by robbers. He is left for dead by the side of the road. The first two persons—the Levite and the priest experienced empathic distress, and, crossed the street, passing by the victim. 

The Samaritan, however, was not overwhelmed by the victim’s suffering. The Samaritan perceived the suffering; he had a vicarious experience of the suffering that did not over-stimulate him with suffering and cause empathic distress. The Samaritan saw a fellow human being; recognized the suffering humanity; and he decided to get involved.

Multiple empathy lessons are available here. First, to regulate one’s empathy, cross the street. This is an edgy and confrontational way of putting it, but it is literally accurate. Cross the street away from the neighbor to “down regulate” your empathy, and experience less empathic distress; and cross the street towards your neighbor to expand your empathy in the direction of creating an inclusive community of persons, who recognize the value of cooperation. 

The empathy lesson is that the vicarious experience does not have to be overwhelming. Rather, with practice, one is able to shift one’s focus from suffering to neighborliness; one is able to shift one’s attention from suffering to making a difference and enhanced self-esteem, expanding community and shared humanity. 

Crossing the street is not the only way to reduce one’s chance of empathic distress or responding empathically. One may imaginatively changes places with the survivor and reflect that one would want the other’s help if one were in a similar predicament. One may spontaneously and without thinking act impulsively to be helpful, because one’s upbringing has made such responsiveness a habitual practice. (I believe this was the case with the Samaritan.) One may reflect, “I am safe and the survivor is no danger to me and it is my turn to help out.”

Or, on the contrary, one may make a devaluing judgment such as “The guy deserved what he got.” Such a judgment would be inaccurate—and in this case it would literally add insult to injury—but such thoughts do occur among by-standers. The passers-by may have just been hard-hearted. One person’s empathy is another’s antipathy. The language speaks volumes.

The empathy lesson consists in distinguishing such a devaluing thought; acknowledging that thinking is profoundly different than acting and should not be confused with it. The empathy lessons is to take action coming from one’s authentic commitments to building community through empathy, not devaluing thoughts. 

This story is an empathy lesson that also instructs us in the difference between empathy and compassion. The Samaritan’s empathy told him what the other person was experiencing; his compassion (and ethics) told him what to do about it. 

This bears repeating: empathy tells one what the other person is experiencing; compassion (and ethics) tell one what to do about it. 

We are usually taught to devalue the behavior of the Levite and the priest; and surely they do not win a prize. Yet in an alternative point of view, they were all-too-human. Seeing all that suffering embodied in the survivor, they just couldn’t take it. They succumbed to empathic distress. 

They experienced a breakdown of their empathic receptivity, and were overwhelmed in a kind of instant empathy fatigue (not compassion fatigue). 

In an alternative reading of the parable, the would-be rescuers dial down the granularity of their empathic receptivity, so as not to be too sensitive to the suffering, even as they get a sample of the suffering, which is needed to inform their humanity. 

The Good Samaritan, who is a seemingly infinite source of insight, is called to his empathic neighborliness by the distress of the injured traveller. The traveller who had fallen among thieves and was beaten near to death creates the possibility of empathic community by his loss of human well-being. He has been reduced to a lump of suffering, broken, physical pain. 

The Samaritan rescues the traveller; the traveller humanizes the Samaritan, calling him not just to the role of an altruist doing a good deed (though that occurs too), but to his possibility as a human being in relation to another fragile, suffering, dependent human being. 

The stricken traveller, by his very being, gives the Samaritan his own humanness. This occurs precisely in making the Samaritan a neighbor in answering the question, “Who is one’s neighbor?” Such was the trick question that the Pharisees posed to Jesus, to which this parable is the response. 

The Samaritan gives humanness to the distressed traveller in an intervention that defines them as part of the same community of fellow travellers—neighbors—on the road of life.

In an alternative retelling of the story suppose that the Levite and the priest were “natural empaths,” biologically predisposed to be sensitive to the pain and suffering of other people. They were endowed with a certain “delicacy of empathy,” and they feel the suffering of the world deeply. Perhaps too deeply. Some people report: “I am a natural empath—and I suffer because I feel the pain of others too acutely. I started out being empathic—but people took advantage of me—and even when they didn’t, I was just too empathic; I got overwhelmed with sensation and sucked dry—the result was burnout, compassion fatigue. Nice guys finish last—so do empathic ones.”  

Thus, the lament of the natural empath. 

Empathy becomes a burden, because the world is filled with so much suffering. Yet if the person uses avoidance to “down regulate” their empathy, the person feels guilty because the individual believes that what she is doing is unkind, thoughtless, lacking in fellow feeling, and—unempathic. 

So the natural empath falls into a double bind, and her suffering seems inevitable. She is over-whelmed by too much openness to the suffering of the other person or over-whelmed by guilt at not living up to her own standards of fellow-feeling and ethics. 

These statements imply that empathy cannot be regulated through training, albeit a training that goes in the opposite direction (from too much empathy in the moment to less empathy) than that required by the majority of people, who are out of touch with their feelings and need to “up regulate” their empathy. The empathy lesson for the natural empath is to be more flexible about her ethical standards, while attempting to tune down her empathic distress.

Some people are skeptical that “natural empaths” are all that they say they are. Natural empaths in their natural state assert that they feel overwhelmed and distressed by other people’s thoughts and feelings. I see no reason to doubt such statements. However, to some critics, a redescription of the natural empath asserts that the latter are “irritable” and “hypersensitive.” 

Empathy is recognizing and understanding the other’s perspective and then communicating that understanding to the other person. Someone who is unwittingly, even helplessly, swept along by the other’s feelings is not really being empathic. Over-identification, not empathy?[i]

The way out of this apparent impasse is to consider that the natural empath does indeed get empathic receptivity right in empathic openness to the other’s distress, but then the person’s empathy misfires. 

Whether the misfiring is over-identification, resulting in empathic distress, depends on the description and redescription. Standing on the sidelines and saying “Try harder!” is easy to do. Where is the training the person needs when they need it?

The recommendation regarding training? Most people need to expand their empathy; some people—natural empaths—need to contract (or inhibit) their empathy. Empathy regulation—learning to expand and contract empathy—is the imperative in either case. 

Instead of complaining about being an overly sensitive natural empath (however accurate that may be) do the work of practicing empathy by “down regulating” one’s empathy in a given situation, transforming empathic distress into a vicarious experience. Instead of complaining about not being pre-disposed to empathy, get up and do the work of practicing empathy, which for most persons means “up regulating,” expanding their empathy. 


[i] Lou Agosta, (2018). Empathy Lessons. Chicago: Two Pairs Press: Order empathy books click here: https://rb.gy/avwkb7

Three books on empathy reviewed: The good, the bad, and the ugly

The first empathy book reviewed here is very good indeed. William Miller’s Listening Well: The Art of Empathic Understanding  (Wipf and Stock, 114pp, ListeningWellEmpathicUnderstandingCoverArt($18US)) is a short book. Admirably concise. My short review is that, as I am author of three academic and one “how to” book(s) on empathy, this is the book that I wish I had written.

Listening Well contains the distilled wisdom of Miller’s several decades of practicing listening as the royal road to expanding empathy. Listening Well is a “how to” book, but the author is adamant that such a skill lives and flourishes in the context of a commitment to being empathic. (I hasten to add that, though Miller’s is the book I wish I had written, my own publications on empathy are significant contributions, and I shamelessly urge the reader to get them on the short list, too.)

Being with the other person without judgments, labels, categories, diagnoses, evaluations, and so on, is what empathy is about most authentically. It is not that such assessments do not occur. They do, but they almost always get in the way. Listening Well is way too short to be a textbook, but I can see it as being useful in a workshop, seminar, or as exercises in a class.

In case you are unaware of William Miller’s background, he is the innovator behind Motivational Interviewing. Listening well – the practice, not just the title of the book – is at the heart of this approach. In turn, the practice of listening well is based on empathic understanding. Miller is explicit in invoking the work of Carl Rogers (1902 – 1987) Rogers was one of the founders of humanistic psychology, and Rogers’s person-centered psychotherapy provides the foundation for this results-oriented intervention.

Cris Beam is a would-be “bad girl,” who has written a very good book. In a world of constrained, limited empathy, the empathic person is a non-conformist. Beam is one of those, too, and succeeds in sustaining a nuanced skepticism about the alternatingIFeelYouCoverArt hype and over-valuation of empathy over against those who summarily dismiss it. Most ambivalently, she calls out the corporate infatuation with empathy. I paraphrase the corporate approach: Take a walk in the other person’s shoes in order to sell them another pair.

In Beam’s book I Feel You: The Surprising Power of Extreme Empathy (Houghton Mifflin, 251 pp. ($26 US$)), Cris Beam makes empathy present. She brings forth empathy her engagement with difficult cases that challenge our empathy, including her own conflicts. In the process of struggling with, against, and for empathy, she succeeds in bringing forth empathy and making empathy present for the reader. From an empathic point of view, I can think of no higher praise.

It gets personal. Beam reports that she is a survivor of a floridly psychotic mother and a father who, at least temporarily (and probably to save himself), abandoned Cris to her fate with that woman. As a teenager, Beam escapes to her father and his second marriage only to be rejected when she “comes out” as a lesbian some years later. Fast forward to Beam’s own second marriage [both to women].

Beam’s partner announces that the partner (at that time a “she”) is committed to transitioning to becoming a man. Beam decides to support her (becoming him) and sticks with it through the top surgery, administering the testosterone shots. The partner tells Beam: “I will love you always [regardless of my gender].” Beam decides to believe the partner. (See what I mean? You can’t make this stuff up.)

 Nor is this a softball review, and I decisively disagree with Beam when she says that empathy is “mutual vulnerability” and approvingly quotes André Keet: “there are no neat boundaries between victim, perpetrators, beneficiaries, and bystanders …” (p. 191). While such a statement is descriptively accurate, once the father walks, leaving the psychotic mother and child behind, the commitment of empathy is to respect boundaries and (re)establish them when the boundaries have broken down or been violated.

Empathy is all about boundaries, and Beam, like so many of us, has her share of struggles with them. No easy answers here. But one final thought as my personal response to Beam’s thought provoking and inspiring work on empathy. We may usefully consider the poet Robert Frost: “Good fences make good neighbors.” I add: There is a gate in the fence, and over the gate is written the word “Empathy.”

The third empathy book, The Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy of Empathy (Routledge, 410pp, $245 US$), has a truly ugly hardcover price of $151 even after the Amazon discount as publishers continue to respond to economic pressures by

Cover Art: The Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy of Empathy

Cover Art: The Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy of Empathy

squeezing the life out of traditional print books that one can hold in one’s hand. The recommendation? Have the library order a copy (the paperback is $54.95, a better price, but nothing to write home about).

I have read, reviewed, and sometimes struggled, not only with the tangled history of empathy from David Hume to mindreading to mirror neurons, but with all thirty-three articles as a would-be empathic contribution for those who come after me. In many cases, I resonated empathically with the article. Bringing a rigorous and critical empathy to the article based on my life and experiences, sometimes the article “clicked,” i.e., worked for me. In other cases, I had to activate “top down” empathy, trying to create a context for a conversation, in which all I can otherwise see is an effort to maximize the number of stipulations that can be made to dance on the head of a pin—the pin being “empathy” (seems like about two dozen).

In every case, I try to be charitable; but in some cases the “empathy meter” goes in the direction of “tough love.” In one or two cases, I acknowledge my empathy breaks down completely in the face of academic over-intellectualization—an obvious occupational hazard in philosophy, but one that needs to be firmly contained in an engagement with a critical and rigorous empathy—and I simply recommend hitting the delete button—or a rewrite from scratch.

A “Handbook” promises to be a comprehensive engagement with the issues. So it is with deep regret, that I call out the fundamental incompletenesses. Nothing on education. Philosophers are not educators? Socrates was not a teacher? Mary Gordon’s program The Roots of Empathy (also the name of her book) includes bringing a baby into the grammar school classroom. Too developmental? Too psychological? The Philosophical Baby (Gopnik et al 2009)?

Also missing is the alternative point of view. The neurohype around mirror neurons is well represented; but what about the alternative point of view that such an entity as a mirror neuron does not even exist in humans and that the neurological infrastructure has a different configuration.[1]

The evolutionary context of empathy is considered; but missed are the role of the human mother-child matrix in the development of affective empathy, the empathizing effect of female sexual selection on male aggression, and the development of perspective taking in group selection in empathy as a “cheater detection system” and “empathic cruelty.” Empathy and morals are well represented; but little about social justice, overcoming prejudice, building bridges between disparate individuals and communities, or the tough related issues.

I am just getting warmed up here. Other incompletenesses are more fundamental—methodological. Empathy is not just the object of the inquiry, but it also needs to be the subject of the inquiry. We get our humanity from the other individual—and the other’s artistic expressions and social contributions.

This is subtle; so let me give an example. Expand your empathy: go to the art museum. Deepen your empathy: attend the symphony. Broaden your empathy: study a foreign culture or indigenous community. Stretch your empathy: read literary fiction. The engagement with aesthetics expands, trains, and develops our empathy; likewise, with the engagement with the other person. How does that work? The contributors seem not to have considered the possibility.

Instead empathy is on the defensive in too many places in the Handbook under review. Empathy is not represented as something of value that needs no apology and is worthy—along with (say) compassion and motherhood—of active promotion and expansion as a benefit to the community. Strangely enough, the breakdowns, failures, and misfirings of empathy—emotional contagion, conformity, projection, and communications lost in translation—are mistaken for empathy itself as if empathy could not misfire or go astray.

Nevertheless, bright spots appear. As Shoemaker points out in his article, the solution to a so-called parochial empathy that is limited to the “in group” is empathy itself – expanded empathy. Expand the boundaries of the community to be inclusive of those previously excluded. No doubt, easier said than done, but that is not a limitation of empathy itself, but of our need for expanded training and practice of empathy.  

The battle is joined. Dan Zahavi, an otherwise impeccable and astute phenomenologist, enters into apologetic worrying about the conundrum: Can we really ever appreciate, understand, empathize with another person’s experience without having had a similar experience [or words to that effect]? Zahavi makes good use of Max Scheler to show that we can. With the exception of Jenefer Robinson (on “Empathy in music”), what is not called out (or even hinted at) is that the encounter with the other person, art, music, and literature enhances and expands our empathy.

 In a world of limited empathy, the empathic person is a nonconformist. I wish I could write this Handbook is overflowing with nonconformists. Happily there are some and they produce several excellent articles—Zahavi, Gallagher, Ickes, Denham, Debes, Hollan, and John (Eileen); but it is otherwise filled with over-intellectualization, stipulations, neurohype, inaccurate phenomenological descriptions (mostly by the neuro-philosophers, not the phenomenologists), and tortured conceptual distinctions lacking in empathy. Seven out of thirty-three is a modest harvest.

One expects a Handbook on empathy would make empathy present for the reader. In the long, dreary march through 397 pages, thirty-three articles, I thirsted for it. Eileen John comes closest to doing so, and she is able to marshal the resources of empathy in the context of literature to help her get over what is admittedly a high bar. The scandal of this Handbook is that amid so many conceptual distinctions relating to empathy, empathy itself—empathy as a presence in the encounter with the reader—goes missing except in this one out of thirty-three articles.

What I am saying is that, with a few exceptions, largely concentrated in the contributions of Heidi Maibom and issues with her editing, there is nothing wrong with this Handbook; but there are so many things missing it is hard to know where to start with them. The practice of empathy is the source out of which emerge the ten thousand empathic distinctions in this Handbook. Key term: practice. Thinking and writing informed by the practice of empathy is the ultimate missing link.

Reviewing each of the thirty-three articles in the Handbook requires a book length treatment in itself. Therefore, I have provided one entitled A Critical Review of a Philosophy of Empathy (Two Pairs Press, 162pp. $10US (Amazon)), in which extensive background on the issues is also engaged. In short, this is a book about the book, and is the complete book review. Each of the articles is reviewed in detail with seven separate and substantial sections orienting the reader to the issues, pro and con, engaged under core problems, history, understanding (mindreading), morals, aesthetics, and cultural issues, all relating to empathy. The recommendation? Check out the review, priced to cover printing plus a latte and biscotti for the reviewer, prior to engaging with the Handbook. You may get 80% of the value in the review; and you will not be bored.

[1]For example, see Gregory Hickok. (2014). The Myth of Mirror Neurons. New York: W. W. Norton. For further debunking of the neurohype see Decety et al. 2013, Vul et al. 2009, and Satel and Lilienfeld 2013.

REFERENCES

Complete, expanded Review of William Miller’s Listening Well: The Art of Empathic Understanding: Review-of-William-Miller-Listening-Well

Complete, expanded Review of Cris Beam’s I Feel You: The Surprising Power of Extreme EmpathyReview-of-Cris-Beam-I-Feel-You-Extreme-Empathy

Completed, expanded Review of Lou Agosta’s A Critical Review of a Philosophy of EmpathyAbout-Lou-Agosta-A Critical-Review-of-a-Philosophy-of-Empathy

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project