When Empathy is Dumb

When you’re chronically ill, healthy people can put you on the defensive. It’s not because they’re healthy but because they’re awkward. They grab your hand guiltily and say, “It’s okay. Everything’ll be all right.” They think they’re being empathic but they’re not. They’re just scared to admit that everything will not be all right.

It’s more like an attack of narcissism. For the healthy, happy and successful, suffering people are an uncomfortable reminder that none of us can expect to feel good or safe for long. Modern culture glorifies the ancient delusion that human beings are destined for happiness. As if evolution has an agenda…. It’s nonsense, but it’s ingrained.

If you want to change your motives, be
mindful of your motives, not your breath.

I always felt bad for the afflicted, but that wasn’t empathy, which joins us to others; it was pity, which distances us from them. Really—how can a winner truly console a loser? After years of trying and failing at empathy, living with my wife Caroline and her multiple sclerosis taught me this upsetting realization and moved me forward.

Empathy isn’t just a gooey feeling. It’s an acquired skill, and it takes a light touch. At first I was horrified by my insincerity, filled with self-disgust. I pledged to never be that way again. That didn’t help at all. No motivator is more useless than neurotic guilt.

What helps is mindfulness, but only if it’s intelligent. An astonishing number of meditators believe that watching the breath for hours will magically make them more insightful and loving. They’re dreaming. If you need to change your motives, be mindful of your motives, not your breath.

The idea that life must have a point is a fiction;
the sense that it’s urgent is a neurosis.

Then there’s the paralyzing double bind of contemplating how you should behave. Proper mindfulness focuses simply and unambitiously on how you are behaving. Next time you feel the urge to declare that everything will be all right, drill down through your stack of motives. Are you saying it for the other’s benefit, or for your own?

We think we’re giving them hope, but hope’s a virtue only if it’s realistic. Besides, what’s at work here is not hope at all. It’s fear. When you subconsciously believe that happiness and success are everyone’s birthright, the possibility that life won’t necessarily serve us is too awful to bear. It’s irrational and rather pathetic, but the young actually hope (and almost believe) they won’t get old, the healthy that they won’t fall sick, and the rich that they won’t lose everything. The incontrovertible fact that everyone ages, gets sick and dies has negligible impact on the way we live.

By accepting your own dilemma you recognize everyone’s

We can change, but not by sheer willpower. Mindfulness steps us away from consoling rationalizations to quietly observe what we’re actually doing, feeling and thinking. It’s not guided by hope, but it’s not hopeless. It’s fearless.

The idea that life must have a point is a fiction; the sense that it’s urgent is a neurosis.  That doesn’t mean nothing counts. We know from experience that we find deep purpose in touching and being touched. We need not just to feel but to feel with others (which is what compassion means). Deep down, we all prize empathy. Once you get past your rationalizations it’s self-evident.

To have lasting results, mindfulness must turn you back to the realities you turn away from. By accepting your own dilemma you recognize everyone’s. Then real empathy simply happens. Once you get over the initial shock it’s strangely consoling. To face fear is to negate it. You see that your condition doesn’t define you. Empathy frees you to be a force of nature, not limited by your fears but empowered by an open heart.


Author: Stephen Schettini

Host of The Naked Monk

11 thoughts on “When Empathy is Dumb”

  1. To look at the other in the eye. openly. That can threaten to be open to your own suffering. we don’t like that.
    What you say is true.
    I also think that I prefer the one that at least makes an effort to hold a hand, to reach out, than the one that just looks the other way, and takes advantage.

  2. Mindfulness helps in all areas of our lives. Most of us are not present in the present, but rather have moved on to the next moment without enjoying or fully experiencing the moment they are in. To be empathic is to be mindful and present of the other’s situation and connect with that person on an emotional level. We can communicate without words and our true intention will shine through. Humans can sense sincerity. True intention is demonstrated by attainment.

  3. . . . which is why our training and practice should be focused in this way. Developing the mental stability and equanimity that allow us to look deeply at our intentions and emotions is what cushion work is good for, but stopping and looking is a skill that needs practice as well. I’m grateful that I’ve trained in a “school” that puts the teaching and practice emphasis on building and applying mindfulness in daily life.

  4. Thankyou for writing truthfully about how people behave when someone they know is facing a lifetime of illness.

    May I also offer some feedback on your website’s usability? I’m viewing it on a mobile phone. When I pan in to see the text in a readable size, the banner and left hand menu expand to fitthree quarters of the screen and will not scroll either left or right or up or down. I read your article on a portion of screen the size of a postage stamp.

    Kindest regards and look forward to more of your articles.

    1. Hello Anne: If you scroll to the bottom of the page there is a slider to turn the mobile theme on and off, providing a much clearer read. I hope this works on your phone. If not, please tell me what phone you’re using.

  5. Stephen
    What I honestly like about you is that you are not only NAKED, but actually flaunting it.
    Boy, your blogs are no holds barred my friend, and, realistically, so is the reality of life (outside our human bla bla stories we have told ourselves through the ages).
    Your concept of mindfulness is so perceptive that any other version of it is simply a waste of breath (literally). Meditation on the cushion has its place, basically the training wheels on a bicycle.
    Eventually, one needs to get off one’s butt and pedal down the available path.
    Empathy per say, is what we give strangers, or superficial acquaintances, a simple firing of mirror neurons in our brains, to remind us to evolutiona-riIy help a fellow human being, but today’s society is about non-involvement and juvenile hedonistic happiness (forget effort, virtue, productivity, achievement…).
    Yet we show LOVE and SUPPORT for people we genuinely care for. I honestly would expect more than empathy from my real friends in moments of true despair. Empathy impairs and diminishes, yet the proof is in the pudding when one says SUPPORT.
    Please carry on with your feeling of exasperation with the system quo, as its stimulating your creative thoughts beyond the conjured and the regurgitated.
    Thank you for the punch, but I saw it coming.

  6. I am in the thick of significant losses and a sustained attack on me which was launched last summer and will continue for at least another 5 months. I can’t speak to why friends and family do this, but you are right on the money about them reassuring me and wanting me to agree that “everything will be OK, in fact everything is OK right now”.

    I have had my share of troubles, and as a result, I am more empathetic to people with similar experiences. This empathy extends beyond shared similar experiences, but not to the same degree.

    But I find that I don’t have the heart, the motivation or the energy right now to be empathetic toward people who are not supporting me or people who expect me to keep soldiering cheerfully on and not be needy. As far as the people who are attacking me – I have no empathy for them at all.

    I don’t feel guilty about this or think that I should have empathy for these people. I suppose I would be a happier person if I did, but you can’t will yourself into empathy. We’ll see if mindful reflection makes a difference eventually.

    Here’s a question for you –
    How would you ever develop empathy for people who behave badly in ways that you never did or would?

  7. Ann’s question is pertinent to my situation as well. I was treated cruelly and shown no mercy by a certain person, and I’m expected to just act like it never happened (“Why can’t you just move on?”) and suffer this person quietly and empathize with them (“They can’t help it, that’s just the way they are.”) while one indignity after another is thrown in my face by that very same person. I’m finding it hard to just accept this because it all seems very absurd, and I’m amazed that no one else can see the absurdity of it all. I used to be angry, but I was just punching at smoke, so now I’m just exhausted.

    1. I’m not sure if it’s a modern problem (as a result of our left-brained educational system) or not, but when some people understand something logically, they’re blind to the fact that it’s emotional for you. It’s about as unempathic as you can get. However, if you can get yourself into their shoes and understand their emotional ignorance, your own frustration could go down a notch.

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