Empathy, fatigue, and evil


I was listening yesterday to “The State of Things” on WUNC radio. The program was on scientific and historical understandings of empathy. One of the presenters suggested that empathy was actually problematic, because we tend to give more weight to the problems of people we know (because that is who we tend to empathize with), and so bigger problems – like starvation, for instance – are too little addressed because we do not have faces and names to put with the problem.

This seemed to me like a problem of empathic imagination – and a theological problem. Can we truly forget when we hear of war in Syria, for instance, that the thousands of people killed already have families who know them by name, who feel their loss keenly – as keenly as we would feel the loss of a family member?  I suppose most of us can, or this and countless other atrocities would not continue.

As I listened to the program, I began to work out a hypothesis that I have been slowly developing about empathy existing on a spectrum. My idea is that some varieties of depression and anxiety may be rooted in a genius for empathy: if hearing of *any* suffering leads to feeling the pain of the one who suffers, then in a world full of suffering, the deeply empathic individual quickly becomes overwhelmed. Over time, this constant barrage of suffering can lead to classic depression symptoms of withdrawal (what I have sometimes called “retreating to my blanket cave”). In order to survive and function, a person with an overwhelming capacity for empathy must find a way to protect herself – perhaps through selectively ignoring certain information, or through finding safe modes of retreat and escape, or through constructing armor to shield her softest places.

When I was 27, I went to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for the first time, as a chaperone to a group of middle schoolers preparing for confirmation. I was armed and ready. I had shed tears for almost two decades over the horror of the concentration camps: I had been reading about the Holocaust since I was ten, even having taken a class in college entitled The Politics of Genocide. I had celebrated Passover with the son of a Holocaust survivor – he wept through the entire meal. I had cried myself dry over the years.

I was there to support the younger people as they encountered wave after wave of new and distressing information. As for me, I was weary and jaded. The systematic elimination of gays and lesbians, gypsies, and the mentally ill was not new. The torture in the name of scientific experimentation was known and could not be more horrible than it had been before. Standing in a train car and imagining myself packed in with a hundred others, unable to see where we were going, on our way to our deaths, whether immediate or drawn out over years – I had imagined it before. It was the stuff of my dreams. The U.S. complicity in the Holocaust did not surprise me. The pile of shoes only told me what I had already known – that the sheer volume of the loss in no way belied the particularity of the loss of each individual. I began to feel afraid of my capacity for self-protection. Had I become so hard that nothing could touch me? Among a busload full of teenagers and chaperones, I alone had not cried.

And then, in the hallway leading into the vestibule that marked the end of our journey, there was a quote from a survivor. I cannot remember the exact words, but what he said was that for him, God had died in the concentration camp. God was dead. Like a vacuum, the emptiness left behind by God’s exit sucked the air out of my lungs and the marrow out of my bones – I felt hollowed out, an empty suit of armor. I wept. Wept for a loss that was greater than any other loss can be – the loss, for one who believed, of the ground of all his being. The loss of his belief in a love that would not let him go. The loss of his belief in a power greater than death and terror and insanity.

Paul writes that nothing can separate us from the love of God. And evil is a relentless nothing that stops at nothing to separate us from the love of God. But evil is a lie. And I remain convinced that love wins.

No storm can shake my inmost calm, when to that rock I’m clinging.  If Love is Lord of heaven and earth, How can I keep from singing?

If Love is Lord…

In these days when we still wait for Love without suffering and Light with no shadows, I sing every chance I get, I hide in my blanket cave when I must, and when I am strong enough I weep, weep in the loneliest caverns of another’s heart.

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