Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Empathetic Distance and Empathy as Luxury


Just a quick thought. That our capacity for empathy is sometimes a luxury. And that distance may or may not help us be more empathetic.

As someone who had fertility problems for almost 5 years, I remember feeling angry and not at all empathetic when someone complained of the difficulties of raising kids. As someone who understands the latter now, I (obviously) can empathize, and know they assuredly did NOT mean to rub it in.

When I had fertility problems, I empathized with others w similar problems, but more w those who couldn’t get pregnant at all (like me) than those who miscarried a lot (which I assumed was much worse… I just mean I couldn’t possibly know how bad it was because my problem was different). More difficult was understanding people who  chose not to have kids and the more “default” situation of just naturally having kids without really thinking about it. Worst of all, getting kids you never wanted at all. I now think I can empathize more with this entire spectrum. New to me is getting to hear the experience of a gay couple seeking adoption. Just starting to understand it from friends i know and care about rather than TV shows and novels. It’s very different when it’s someone close to you. 

So about distance. 

When you have so much hurt your living, experiencing, it is hard to empathize with someone too distant from your situation. To do so, there needs to be some kind of luxury that you don’t need to invest all your emotional energy in your own self and you have some left over for others. Or you acquire distance from your OWN situation (e.g. because of time or changes) and you can be empathetic in hindsight.

I hope all of this helps us broaden our capacity for empathy as we grow.

I know that at times I was so caught up in my own oppression, marginality, pain, that I could only help myself and fight for myself, not noticing pain of others who were different from me, noticing only those similar to me.

I know at times that being too distant from another situation means I cannot fully empathize and I need to bring it closer to home, to a feeling or situation I felt or lived in order to imagine it.

I think, we can develop it in the moments we have the luxury or compulsion to and our capacity grows.

As @BMBOD said on Twitter (OK she said several thoughtful things)


  1. For reasons that will become clear, I worked for several years with CLAPA (Cleft Lip and Palate Association) and I remember an adolescent (who had a repaired cleft) writing about empathy. They said how much they valued people with empathy who could help pull them out of the well rather than get in the well with them. I googled to see if I could find a source for this and couldn’t but I did find this article, . The first part of the article makes a very good case for the importance of developing empathy for people who have problems that we don’t share. In my second pregnancy, I had a late diagnosis of twins and knew before they were born that one had a birth anomaly that was incompatible with life. When they were born, they both had cleft lip and palates and Martin lived for four days. In away, this helped us to put the cleft in perspective – it wasn’t life-threatening. Also because clefts run in our family, I had personal knowledge that it needn’t be a tragedy.
    About 6 weeks after their birth, I met up with mothers from my National Childbirth Trust group. One of them (studiously avoiding the topic of the baby who died) expressed sympathy for us having a bay with a cleft because …. she had been worried about that happening to her baby (who was born with no problems at all). I thought briefly “You have no f*cking idea” and then smiled and moved on because my life was far too busy to worry about this self-centred woman who was so clearly lacking in empathy:)
    Seriously though, maybe empathy is a muscle that we need to work on when we are younger. We can’t be expected to use that muscle when we are injured by life-s circumstances but we have it available for use with people whose problems we can recognise without having experienced then.

    • U know this reminded me of something. A cousin of mine was crying nearly hysterically the day my dad died. I was 6 months pregnant (after 5 years of infertility and going thru some bleeding the 3rd month). I had been thru 2 hospitalizations of close family in past 3 months. And she was crying coz my dad died. I wasn’t. I was so angry at her..because by crying that way she was getting SYMPATHY. He wasn’t even her own uncle for God’s sake.
      When my uncle died it was only a year later. I didn’t cry publicly because I felt the right thing to do was to support my cousins (his kids) and his wife and his sisters (my aunts and mom). It’s not that I lacked empathy or wasn’t sad myself even. I had just recently lost my dad and it reminded me of that. And I loved my uncle. But the most useful thing to do/be at the time is emotionally detached from my own feelings and helping them in actionable ways not feeling sad and crying with them.

      I am just thinking of what yoy just said and how behavior that supports someone who’s suffering is more important than feeling with them. Sometimes u don’t need to feel with someone to support them (how can a man imagine what it’s like to bear and give birth to kids? When so many if not most ob/gyn are men). In other cases, feeling with others can help us know how to help because we have been there or imagined it and know them well enough to imagine what would be most helpful behavior. But we may assume and make mistakes. Been reflecting on this a lot and have a game-like thing developed that unpacks this a little and takes it in different dimensions. Working on it w Audrey now.

      On how we don’t always know what’s best for someone else and to try not to assume as much as possible

  2. Empathy seems to be a necessary attribute of being social animals–a connection we automatically (not necessarily accurately) make to be able to “know” others before we even meet them. A gracefulness to balance our natural wariness of strangers. As a way of becoming aware of others’ emotional / experiential state it may be too general or overly stuffed with our own biases.

    Reading “Practicing the Art of Compassionate Listening” by Andrea S. Cohen and “How We Grieve: Relearning the World” by Thomas Attig and reaching out has become a way more complicated subject for me. The struggle seems to be around the idea of being usefully empathetic rather than dispensing sympathy without asking first what is needed. Like you said Maha, not knowing what what someone needs should make us hesitate to offer help that may be inappropriate. Do we as intelligent humans presume that how WE feel is how THEY feel? Are we that smart?

    Thanks for this Maha and the New Yorker article Francis.

  3. The question I am asking myself is how activists can be intentional in strategic reframing of narrative so that it affects groups outside of our “reach” towards more social justice. How can your dialogic work be spun out exponentially to affect people who don’t have the “luxury of building empathy”. This explains my interest in distributed ethnography and narrative activism :

  4. Great link Simon! Thanks. I deal with people institutionalized into believing they themselves model the highest level of empathy yet get terribly upset when the people they “serve” behave in ways that betray a lack of appreciation for their practiced caring skits.
    Justin von Bujdoss <> calls it violence: “There is extreme violence in trying to modify the process of another telling a story” and I think I agree. That there is a structure to empathy that can be fashioned into a universal sympathy-kit capable of replacing listening and responding with a pre-recorded “we care” message is a kind of violence of the generic human school.
    It’s falsehood to regard humans in one type and I wonder how teachers with many, many humans to teach manage their empathy? What stories do they tell themselves to remain connected?

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