By: Nava Katz  | 

Empathy Is Important, But It Has Its Limits

I’ve always found beauty in the fact that in times of crisis and tragedy, Am Yisrael is one. The ability that we have to feel connected to people that we have never met is quite moving. But do we take it too far? Should someone feel guilty if they aren’t brought to tears by every tragedy on the news? With advancements in globalization and the interconnectivity of the “world wide web,” we have access to the plights of billions of people around the world. How much emotional energy is appropriate to expend on strangers?

I began thinking about this issue when I came across an article in The Atlantic that discussed the evolution of the role of the U.S. president. The author of the piece argued that, over time, presidential responsibilities have become so extensive that it is impossible to expect one person to be able to fulfill them all. The most interesting aspect of the progression for me was the development of the emotional responsibilities of the president. In 1955, President Eisenhower went on vacation during a time of national suffering, when multiple states were hit by hurricanes, and no one minded. He wasn’t expected to carry the emotional burden of the nation. That same situation would be untenable today. In the 21st century, it would be scandalous for the president to be on vacation during a time of national trauma. He would be fodder for the media, condemned for being cold, unfeeling and out of touch with the people. 

This is reflective of a phenomenon that is endemic today: the push to have more empathy. Dozens of speeches and articles in recent years discuss how our society is experiencing an “empathy deficit.” Many feel that dramatic news has made us desensitized. However, I would argue that sometimes, we actually have too much empathy. We all know people who react to Facebook posts about foreign crises by crying over the victims — people they didn't know existed until they checked those very notifications. Many try to outdo each other to prove how deeply saddened and affected they are, whether on social media or in person. There is a pervasive social pressure to exhibit a certain level of emotion in response to tragic news, regardless of how we truly feel. While feelings of connection may seem laudable, they can also be disingenuous and unnatural. Is this level of emotional investment truly healthy, and proportional to those people’s actual relation to the tragedy? 

This disparity is compounded by the fact that many are often immune to the suffering of those directly around them. People who are very empathetic on a macro scale often lack empathy for others close to them. We live in a strange time, where societally, we seem to be simultaneously hyper-emotional and less connected to one another than ever before.

This push for more empathy begs a different question: Does empathy even result in more positive outcomes? Many studies suggest otherwise. In an article published in the Wall Street Journal, several studies quoted showed that on average, empathy made people objectively less moral. When faced with ethical dilemmas, such as giving treatment to save one child from a terminal illness versus saving many children, participants who had done an exercise to empathize with the first child opted to save her at the expense of the others. Harvard Business Review adds that empathy is finite, and caring so deeply about strangers depletes our emotional energy and reduces our ability to exhibit empathy in other vital areas, such as our personal and communal interactions. Overextending ourselves emotionally for strangers isn’t necessarily a good thing. 

This doesn’t mean that empathy doesn’t have a place, or that we don’t have a responsibility to help people. Emotional investment is often a necessary factor to motivate people to be catalysts for good in the world. In the words of Rabbi Sacks, “Jewish history begins in miracles, but culminates in human responsibility. What changes us is not what is done for us by God, but what we do in response to His call.” Without empathy, we might not heed His call. We might decide that the continuation of genocide, child hunger, abuse and hundreds of other causes of human suffering aren’t our problem. We might lack the drive to become involved in things that don’t result in our personal gain. However, empathy doesn’t have to mean taking on emotional baggage for every sad story on the news. 

Terrible headlines can affect us, and make us feel for people with whom we have little or no connection. Empathy in the face of tragedy makes us reevaluate our own lives, and can enable us to make a real difference in the lives of others across the globe. Some people really are hyper-empathetic to every tragedy they hear about, and that is beautiful. But if someone doesn’t feel that way, they aren’t monsters. They might just have a healthy amount of disengaged empathy for calamities a world away.

Photo Caption: Headline reporting the August 2021 Taliban takeover of Afghanistan following the U.S. military’s withdrawal.

Photo Credit: The Commentator