Amid all the recent polarization in our country, I was reminded of a controversial Invisibilia podcast called “The End of Empathy” which ponders whether empathy is a worthwhile quality or one that can lead to morally bankrupt actions. It made me flash back to a time I found myself seated next to an elderly woman from Hershey, Pennsylvania on an international flight. Minutes after takeoff she tearfully told me this was her first time flying since her beloved husband Hans died. She asked me if I would accompany her to the baggage claim to meet her son when we landed in Frankfurt. (I had a brief layover before my connecting flight to Kenya.) I agreed and prepared to dedicate the flight to being a caring human being. Then my companion let slip that dear Hans had been a soldier in the German army.

This stopped me in my tracks. You see I ‘m a child of holocaust survivors. Even as an adult I still suffer occasional nightmares of boot-stomping Nazis chasing me screaming, “Filthy Jew!” I longed to pry Anna’s hand from my elbow, scream my identity to all the passengers, and demand the flight attendants find me another seat.

And no way would I steer this woman through the airport at Frankfurt–Frankfurt!!–to find her son. But Anna had never been an SS officer.  She was now a 70-plus widow, thin as a pencil, bent over with grief and fear. How could I deny this suffering fellow human my empathy?

In that podcast I mentioned, Dr. Fritz Breithaupt, author of The Dark Sides of Empathy argues that having an over-abundance of empathy is actually the cause for atrocities, in circumstances where empathy is only directed at one’s own team, so to speak.

Certainly, our uber-toxic current political climate shows the perils of affording empathy only to those who hold our viewpoints. On my Facebook feed people are cheered for declaring an intent to unfriend anyone who voted for Trump. This wholesale negating the possibility of even one decent quality on “the other side” has led to what feels like a modern civil war.

A quote by psychologist Paul Bloom, author of Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, is cited in the podcast: “Being against empathy is like being against kittens.” Yet as Bloom’s book points out, being empathetic to one person or set of persons can be all-consuming. Does caring deeply about one click-worthy trauma keep us from developing more than surface interest in other suffering we might help alleviate through donations, activism, or more?

We can’t discount the emotional strain that stems from being an empath (highly sensitive person) either. If you feel another’s pain too deeply, you are in danger of overload. As a therapist my job involves being the keeper of my patients’ most painful secrets. If I could not step back, set boundaries, and make regular efforts to self-nurture I’d wind up retreating to my bed and drawing the covers over my head.

Still it would be impossible to do this work without possessing mega doses of empathy. Over the past 12 years I have counseled hundreds of people from vastly different backgrounds and life experiences which has led to some possessing vastly different world views from mine. Some patients hold beliefs or values I find personally distasteful, yet I can find places to connect with them on a gut level–we’ve both suffered the loss of family members, experienced the gut punch of divorce, and/or know what it is like to feel helpless and hopeless. When someone is mired in hating indiscriminate people, if I dig deep enough, typically I’ll find the self-hatred and fear beneath the unlikable façade.

That long-ago evening on the plane to Frankfurt, I looked at Anna’s frail, wrinkled hand now resting on the armrest between us and decided she was not her husband. I could handle keeping my word and delivering Anna to her son Hans in Frankfurt. Granted, I did feign a sudden onslaught of fatigue and said I needed to sleep the remainder of the flight. When we arrived, Hans beamed and told me gratefully, “Danke Fraulein,” when he caught sight of his mother. I managed a wan smile before fleeing. It’s a decision I’ve never regretted. What counted most for me was to feel worthy of my amazing parents who came out of their horrific ordeals with their humanity intact.

Last Updated: Dec 17, 2019