Empathy vs. Compassion

The 1990 movie “Jacobs Ladder” is about an American soldier who has returned from Vietnam under some sketchy circumstances. As he tries to get his life in order and move forward he starts to experience a growing number of odd and unsettling things. These leave him shaken, and since some of them seem to be related to his time in the war, he grows more curious about what happened. As the movie progresses he starts to realize that his memory has some huge gaps in it and the continuity problems began on a specific day while his platoon was stationed somewhere in the Vietnam jungle. SKIP AHEAD three paragraphs if you have not seen the movie and want to avoid finding out why his life became so bizarre.

The climax of the film centers around what happened on that day. In an attempt to turn human beings into the ultimate fighting machines the Army scientist manufacture an LSD-like drug they call the ladder – the main effect of it is to trigger primal fear within the user. The rational is that fear is the source of all anger and if a soldier is angry, they will fight with more aggression – think about how a cornered wild animal seems to throw a switch that redirects their flight energy into fight energy that causes them to do a 180 and to violently attack whatever has cornered it. Something is going to die in the next few seconds and the cornered animal is going to do everything it can to make sure it isn’t it.

During the day in question, the soldier are hanging out, talking, eating, smoking, playing cards, etc…. You hear some helicopters flying over that one of the soldiers comments are not expected. Over the next few minutes everyone begins to start acting differently. A few of them run off screaming, one of them begins to look terrified, the rest of them just seem to go to pieces. There’s a fast forward and the main character is seen in the jungle holding his gun clearly looking for the enemy. Suddenly there is some action and he is stabbed. At the end of the film it is revealed that he was mortally wounded by another member of his platoon because the ladder worked so well that the soldiers were unable to perceive anything other than threat and viewed any other person as the enemy. There is no such thing as logic when you are completely overcome by a fight or flight response, so there was no way they were going to be able to discern their platoon mates from their actual enemy and everyone began to attack the first person they saw.

This is the problem with empathy and it is why our species is much better served by compassion.

Empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another” while compassion is defined as “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.” In a metaphoric way, empathy allows us to become another person by taking on their feelings, or our interpretation of what their feelings are. This is very different from compassion which has us remain as ourselves and experience our version of concern for someone else. There is no blurring of the boundaries between us and them, allowing us to remain in control and more rational about what we are experiencing or our interpretation of it. The risk of an amygdala or emotional hijack is much lower when compared to the risk level when an act of empathy triggers fear or anger.

The maintenance of boundaries is critical when dealing with challenges because detachment or separation from a situation is very important for objective problem solving. There is a tendency for the number of solution choices to drop dramatically the closer one gets to the events. A normally very pragmatic person can be left incapable of anything other than a “hulk smash” reaction to something when they are part of it while those on the outside will see many alternatives that do not involve the destruction or elimination of a “threat.” The passage of time will also have the same effect. The massive reaction today will probably seem over the top in a few hours or a day later when the person can see that they could have just said “thank you, I’m not interested” and closed the door.

Having too much empathy causes us to relate too much with one of the two parties in a conflict. This comes at the cost of being able to maintain the idea that the other party is an equal and therefore entitled to the same respect and rights that we are bestowing upon the person we are connecting with. This makes sense, we are actually feeling what we believe the person is feeling, which will trigger us to respond to the other person as though they are actually acting towards us. But there are two sides to everything so our hyper vigilant quest of complete understanding for one party causes their experience to take on a disproportionately large role in our understanding of the situation or conflict as a whole.

Of course, we are wrong with whatever it is we are feeling in terms of empathy because we are NOT the other person and we have very little understanding of the context that led to things being what they are. While it might be true that IF we found ourselves in that situation we WOULD feel a specific way, this should beg the question, would we ever find ourselves in the situation? There is a very good chance that somewhere along the way, before things got were they are now, we would have done something different that would have change the course and eliminated what is presently occurring from the list of future possibilities. The context piece of it is very important because it is rarely visible and therefore very hard to bring to mind, particularly when the amygdala has hijacked our brain.

Not all people who are suffering are victims; or at least not all people who are suffering are being victimized. This is a very important fact to consider, one that empathy doesn’t really allow for. Emotions are a strange thing in that it is a lot easier to be angry at someone else than it is to be angry at ourselves and the anger towards others will last a lot longer. The context provides important information about how each person arrived at this moment and it will clearly show the level of responsibility each person has for what is going on. Very often, the person who is suffering has made a series of bad decisions, one after the other, leaving them with the choice of this bad thing or that bad thing. When they had the opportunity to create a future that didn’t have this situation as one of the possible outcomes, they made a bad choice.

This can be a tough pill to swallow because it does land like victim blaming and dogmatically adhering to it does kind of remove compassion from the equation. It also seems like a very “right wing” view of the world, and it might be. And none of these things, even if they are all true, make this perspective incorrect. I’d argue that the moment someone sees themselves as the cause of their situation marks the beginning of their situation improving. There is no power in being a victim. Life is DONE to victims and their only choice is to put-up with it while feeling worse and worse. But the growing negative feelings only serve to hijack their logical thinking to an even greater degree, leading to fewer solutions and more “victimization.”

There are some real victims, people who have found themselves in bad situations with no good options through no fault of their own. People who would have done something else if they knew what as actually going on. These people need assistance, which is best fueled by compassion. Feeling pity or concern will allow you to remain helpful because you will not become overwhelmed with whatever feelings being empathetic causes to come to the surface.

This is the same approach that should be employed with dealing with people who are suffering as a result of their own poor or lazy decision making. In fact, empathy will only be counter productive with these people because it will cause you to miss critical clues about context that are needed to restore their sense of control and autonomy. Consider the case when someones computer crashes causing them to lose a lot of work. There are two ways to look at this situation. The first is to see the person as a victim of bad luck, and to empathize with them. You’ll feel disappointment and anger, and this will lead to a strong sense of bitterness. The second way is to see the person as having played a role in the situation through one or more of their actions. You can be compassionate towards them, it really sucks to see the screen go blue and know that the last few hours of your work has just disappeared. But you don’t need to live their negative feelings and cultivate a sense of bitterness that you’ll bring with you into the rest of the day. This isn’t helpful and will only do harm.

When you allow yourself to be compassionate, you will very quickly start to solve the problem and empower them with the responsibility of implementing the solution. In this case, a computer crash shouldn’t mean the loss of hours of work because everyone KNOWS that computers crash and should be taking the steps to preempt the consequences of this happening. Those who have not backed up or saved their work are completely responsible for whatever work is not available to them once the computer reboots. It isn’t Microsoft or Apples fault, nor is it the fault of the company that makes your computer. Operating systems are complex, powerful, and fallible. An individual transistor is simple, a collection of a billion of them isn’t. Complex things throw errors and you need to know this when working with something that is complex. There is a non zero chance that any complex thing will stop working in the next second so given enough seconds it IS going to break down. Save your work often, back-up you work often and back-up your back-ups often. If you choose not to do this, when the complex thing breaks down and you lose the last few hours of your work, it is gone because YOU made the choice to make the most of your bad luck.

This doesn’t mean that you laugh at the person who didn’t look after their work, but you shouldn’t ever empathize with them UNLESS you are willing to really feel what it is they should be feeling. Saying “stupid piece of crab” or “useless bloody operating systems” as you cultivate an anger that is directed towards a computer is entirely the wrong thing to feel when someone loses their work as a result of a computer crash. While that might be a pure expression of empathy, it isn’t an accurate reflection of reality. In this case, empathy should be having the rage sent inwards for NOT saving their work and backing things up. The expression of emotion onto something that is external is an effective way of not feeling the consequences of the truth, but it is a lousy way of making the future any better than the present.

And this is one of the main problems with empathy, it doesn’t reflect the reality of the situation and is based only superficially on the context and the history leading-up to the moment in question. It cannot be said that your feelings are wrong because they are what you are feeling, but it is fair to say that they are not appropriate when they are not based on all of the events that contribute to the situation. When someone doesn’t take responsibility for backing-up their work and the computer crashes, being compassionate towards them, by acknowledging their disappointment and maybe offering to help them look for any auto recovery versions of the work because you have a more clear head about things, is the only course of action that makes sense, and the only one that might possibly help them find the lost work.

The other area in which empathy is exceptionally problematic is in the realm of conflict. Specifically when it comes to taking sides, because it is impossible to take both sides of an argument at once. Human beings cannot be objective processors the moment they start to feel what they believe one of the sides in the conflict is feeling. In fact, the longer they stay in an empathetic state, the more subjective their interpretation and perceptions will be. If they spend long enough there, they will be able to manufacture hatred, rage, and complete contempt for those on the other side of the conflict; all while having very little access to the context and the history of the events that lead up to the escalation.

This does not mean that every conflict is justified, nor does it mean that no conflicts are justified. The second world war was absolutely needed to happen to stop the actions of those who started it. Hitler was awful, his ideas were wrong, and his solution to things wasn’t grounded in a version of reality that was shared by anyone. However, and I’m not making excuses here, when you take a look at what happened after the first world war, the second world war seems almost inevitable. How Germany was treated throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s was both the result of too much empathy for those who were effected by WW1 and a complete lack of compassion for the German people who didn’t have anything to do with starting the war. They were simply people who were trying to carve out lives for themselves in exactly the same way as the people from any other country that found itself involved in the war. When the ruling class starts a conflict and the entire country is made to pay for it afterwards, there is almost no way to avoid future conflicts because the population is eventually going to grow tired of the punitive measures they are forced to endure for something they had no hand in starting. This is why the end of most of the wars since WW1 have had the winning side provide finance and participate in the recovery efforts.

On a much smaller scale, empathizing too much with either side of a conflict is going to dramatically reduce your ability to actually be of service in terms of offering solutions or helping to broker peace. The other side will be bad, evil or untrustworthy, and this will fuel suspicion and animosity, which will trigger a greater emotional reaction and keep the cycle going.

As unappealing as it seems to the other side, having compassion for both groups is critical for cooling things off and putting an end to strife. It is a lot easier for outside parties to approach the issue with compassion vs. empathy BUT not impossible for those who are involved in it. When it happens, a strong characteristic of compassion alters the dynamic in a powerful way. Compassion, like empathy, humanizes the person we are relating to. But unlike empathy, compassion for the other is possible (thus ensuring the ongoing objectivity) and once it is triggered, it is nearly impossible to not approach the situation from a more objective and balanced point of view. When this occurs, the vilification of others becomes much more difficult and the notions of right and wrong evaporate to be replaced by differences in opinion based on different perspectives or access to different information. This will allow both sides to track into the specific challenges and the key players in the conflict. Hitler was accurately determined to be evil, along with a number of his supporting players, but the German people were not lumped into this bucket because of the objective assessment compassion allows.

The ladder in Jacobs Ladder was a fear creating drug. It eliminated the possibility for compassion or an objective assessment of what is going on because when fear is involved there is only “me,” “them,” and the rest. The rest is everyone and everything that presents no threat and is ignored into non existence. The only thing that comes to mind is the threat – them – and the only thing to do is to take massive action to run away or to destroy the threat.

Under normal circumstances we have the ability to expand this binary reaction dynamic by avoiding an empathic reaction and preventing ourselves from getting lost in the experience of feeling our perception of other peoples feelings. This will give us the clarity to see things for what they are and to consider the role each person played in creating the present situation. We will be able to care and relate to the people involved, but we’ll not get lost in blaming other people for things that they didn’t have very much to do with. This is much more helpful to the person who is suffering because we give them understanding but do not give them permission to remain locked in a less than ideal situation. In the end, showing compassion for others is an act of caring that can help to move them through something they do not like by reestablishing the link between their actions and the outcomes they are experiencing. It reveals to them that they have the power to change their circumstances simply because it prevents you from getting wrapped up in the emotions that crush objectivity and reduce clarity and options.

There is no drug called the ladder, but too much empathy might be a fairly good behavioral proxy. We all have the power to choose between compassion and empathy when faced with someone who is suffering, and if we really want to help them, we’ll take whatever steps we need to in order to show that we care for them. They’ll know that they are not alone while being certain that we are committed to helping them move past whatever the miserable experiences is they have found themselves in because we will be standing beside them and not, metaphorically, INSIDE of them.