Compassion v. Empathy: Understanding the Difference

Pope Francis embraces a patient at St. Francis of Assisi Hospital in Rio de Janeiro. (CNS photo/Reuters )
Pope Francis embraces a patient at St. Francis of Assisi Hospital in Rio de Janeiro. (CNS photo/Reuters )

Recently, I’ve been rereading selections from Henri Nouwen’s writings in the bathroom, as they are short, to the point, and open into deeper reflections. Some may protest at the idea of doing spiritual reading in the bathroom, but I find it a perfect place. No one bothers you. Your cell phone cannot buzz or twitch at you. For just a while you are protected from real life, all except the parents of toddlers who do not respect any kind of doors.

Henri Nouwen was a Dutch priest and theologian of enormous output. He wrote many books, lectured widely, inspired thousands in their spiritual journeys, and wound up living his later years in a L’Arche community in Canada, which pairs mentally abled adults with mentally disabled adults, and both benefit from shared work and connection. His book, The Wounded Healer has influenced countless people, and the way he drew on his own darkness, his sense of unworthiness, makes him a good spiritual companion for someone like me.

During a recent reading in the blessed silence of our necessary, I came across something I’d never realized before — the difference between empathy and compassion. Henri speaks eloquently of how we spend our emotional energy sympathizing with our needy friends, reaching out to troubled ones, and identifying with their situations. We almost see ourselves in their shoes. You know how this goes. We all have friends who have used up our empathy meters. We keep putting in coins — praying, looking around for resources to help them, talking way too long on the phone to help support their shaky selves — and then we collapse because the meter has run out.

When we pray for God’s guidance and open our hands to the startling possibility that maybe — just maybe — we cannot fix the situation but God can, we cease being exhausted because the well does not run dry.

Henri Nouwen suggests that compassion is somewhat different: We are not just hovering over our needy friends dispensing comfort and aid. We remain involved in their difficult lives, but the posture and stance we come from are different. We are working on God’s operating system, hand in hand with His love and help and mercy. Therefore the cost of compassion is different from the cost of empathy. In the latter we try to help our friends by drawing on our own emotional resources. But when we pray for God’s guidance and open our hands to the startling possibility that maybe — just maybe — we cannot fix the situation but God can, we cease being exhausted because the well does not run dry. We can help with a new sense of ease because we are drawing on God’s energy and love, not just our own.

How do I know this? I am the child of parents who were great social activists, and I grew up with the sense that it was my duty to save the world. It was, in an odd way, almost like being brought up in an evangelical household. There were no grays, only white and black, in the moral arena. And it was our job, as growing children, to rush around trying to plug all the leaks in our friends, the political system, etc., etc. Exhausting.

After my surprising and unexpected conversion to Christianity (I think my Dad was baffled and appalled), I realized that my feet were planted on more solid ground. I wasn’t trying to repair the world — I was letting God do it. Of course, that doesn’t mean you don’t feed the hungry; adopt a child from Bolivia and send monthly checks; and work to ease homelessness. But you don’t exhaust yourself doing this because with prayer and worship you let God work through you. It is Her love and ours that writes the check — it is His love and ours that sizzles onions and makes the big pot of chili for the homeless shelter — it is Her love and ours that knits mittens for the Giving Tree at church.

And so, brothers and sisters, relax. We are not in charge. God is, and I am deeply thankful for that.


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