Widgets Magazine


The empathy paradox

There’s an image of empathy we all know that is beautiful: the fullness of completely understanding someone else, the symbolic walk in shoes that are not one’s own. The knowledge that someone else can share a pain so acute that would otherwise seem unbearably solitary. It’s an image inherent to empathy’s definition, an image that many believe in wholeheartedly. Several studies conducted by Stanford researchers alone suggest people are motivated to feel empathy, that empathy is highly associated with social desirability, that it is as beneficial as it is admired.

During the period when I thought I needed a justification for loving literature, I would invoke this empathy like it was something I needed to sell – was there anything so poetic and morally instructive and perspective-widening as the ability to step outside of myself into the world of another, to feel the complexity of an outside experience as if it were my own? I read humanities defenses that cite the development of empathy as a benefit of reading literature, scientific studies affirming these benefits and novels that made me feel like I could completely inhabit their characters. Yet the more I read, the more I became painfully aware of a significant distinction that is often omitted from casual dialogue around empathy and the way we are led to understand it – the distinction that true, transformative empathy is impossible, that we can never fully comprehend the experiences of others simply because we cannot be them.

In “The Empathy Exams,” Leslie Jamison writes of the ways we try to empathize with each other and fail, discussing the point of reconciliation we must reach between trying to understand the experiences of others and knowing we can’t. In “Mrs. Dalloway,” Virginia Woolf writes about both our web of interconnection in this world and the scales on which this interconnection faces obstruction – here was one room, there another. In “White Teeth,” Zadie Smith writes of the inescapable effects of history on each individual, histories as personal to one as they are incomprehensible to another. All of the literature that had before seemed to me so reflective of empathy’s inexhaustible potential became testaments to its limitations, the relationships I formerly viewed as simple now fleshed out, our webs separated, our skies never the same blue. For our empathy has limits, it is imaginative, it is driving on the highway toward a horizon it can never touch.

While this restriction on human connection initially troubled me, shook the foundations of the characters I loved and the people I thought I understood, I’ve realized this distinction is crucial to preventing empathy from becoming reductive. Believing that completely understanding the emotions and experiences of others is achievable makes it easy to flatten them of their complexity. It makes the stories others tell, stories of suffering and oppression and inequality, easy to dismiss if we are discomforted by the implications of their origins. It halts the progression of connection, putting a cap on further discovery once the believed point of complete empathy has been reached. Without the realization that our understanding of experiences  is never fully complete, the empathy that appears so normatively uplifting and transformative also limits our connections with others; i.e. it one-dimensionalizes them.

All this is not to say that this new imaginative empathy is not lonely. The duality of liberating individuality and lonely isolation is a daunting one. The conflict between wanting to connect with others and knowing the impossibility of complete understanding often terrifies me into feeling alone. Yet there have been moments when this interconnection felt so possible and real: driving at night in Los Angeles with the windows rolled down and people clumped at every street corner; talking with friends about what our lives used to look like on the floor of my dorm room. I believe in these connections, and I believe that the limitations of empathy don’t prevent us from feeling a kind of untouchable closeness.

My SLE peers and I watched Louis Malle’s “My Dinner With Andre” three weeks ago, and it stirred me to the point that I haven’t stopped thinking since. In this two-hour dialogue exploring communication and connection, one of the characters, Andre, speaks of the need for a new language for people to be able to fully understand each other. A language “that is a new kind of poetry, that’s the poetry of the dancing bee that tells us where the honey is … where you have that sense of being united to all things. And suddenly, you understand everything.”

I think this new language would be beautiful and lovely and seamless, but I also wonder how our world would be changed by it. I wonder what it would mean to understand everything – the kind of weight we would carry, what sense of individuality would be lost. I don’t know the true meaning of  empathy or the right things to say to someone in pain. But as long as these connective limitations exist, I do think there is value in listening: listening without assuming understanding, listening as a reminder of the un-lonely.


Contact Maddie Kim at mkim16 ‘at’ stanford.edu.