Empathy and the Limits of Distance

Jun 11, 2020

Given the deep divisions that define our cultural moment, empathy is often touted as the central virtue of our age. But our growing tribalism continues to undermine our efforts to understand people who remain culturally remote. Add a pandemic to the mix and the difficulties are multiplied. In this episode, Nathan and Cameron discuss the limits and possibilities of empathy in our divided age.

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Cameron McAllister - @CamMcAllister7
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Please Note: Thinking Out Loud is produced to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Cameron McAllister: Hello, and welcome to Thinking Out Loud. Thinking Out Loud is a podcast where we think out loud about current events and Christian hope. I'm your co-host, Cameron McAllister.

Nathan Rittenhouse: And I'm your co-host to Nathan Rittenhouse.

Cameron McAllister: A word that is very, very trendy these days is “empathy.” It's weird the ways in which that has kind of become a central moral word in our age. Time and time again, I see this in a lot of progressive thinkers, actually, so men and women who would definitely not be Christian necessarily, who many of whom are skeptical, but they keep coming back to the fact that empathy, and we can talk a little bit more about what precisely do we mean by empathy, but in the end, our greatest, most cherished stories, our greatest, most cherished works of art or all of our deepest kind of ethical thinking, really where we need to land is on a more full-bodied vision of empathy, how to enter into the experiences of other people, especially when they are people who are drastically different from us, or especially when we're talking about people who are marginalized. So the word “empathy” has come to play this kind of out-sized role.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Can I interrupt you there a second?

Cameron McAllister: Please.

Nathan Rittenhouse: How do you think that's being defined in the common usage?

Cameron McAllister: Well, I mean, that's where this gets interesting right from the start. I mean, I think a very basic definition or way of looking at empathy for many of the people, at least the way it's being used here, would be that it's the ability to enter into someone else's shoes, especially if that person comes from a very different world from you, whether that's ethnically, philosophically or otherwise, and to kind of enter sympathetically into those shoes. But on the other hand though, that's immediately complicated, Nathan, because increasingly we're seeing people often saying, "No, my own experiences are so unique to me that they are invulnerable to other people who haven't had the same experiences as me." So this is kind of, of course, the phrase that often comes to mind here is “identity politics.” But, practically speaking, this is a kind of mindset where people often say, “Well, my own experiences are so much my own that I'm effectively bulletproof when it comes to anybody else's outside opinions." If they don't share explicitly in those experiences, then they really can't say anything about it. So that makes the whole empathy thing difficult.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Okay. Well, let me make it worse.

Cameron McAllister: Make it worse.

Nathan Rittenhouse: What if it's the case though, because there very much is that element of it, but I think there's another component of that, is that you actually have to know somebody very well in order to empathize on certain issues and topics. And I'm not sure that we as humans have the same tight knit forms of relationship that allow us to genuinely empathize with somebody else's situation. So I'm more optimistic that empathy is possible as far as entering into somebody else's experience. I'm less certain of our ability to do that at a high speed in a globalized digital context.

Cameron McAllister: Yeah. Well, and now let's make it worse than that even.

Nathan Rittenhouse: All right.

Cameron McAllister: Now, we're in the midst of a pandemic. Now, there are signs of the whole quarantine loosening a little bit. It depends on where you are, of course. You used the word “global.” We should come back to that word, Nathan, at some point.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah.

Cameron McAllister: Because that word has some baggage, doesn't it?

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah, and I kind of threw it in there as a teaser because...Well, anyway, go ahead.

Cameron McAllister: Yeah, we'll get there. So I'm in the Atlanta area and so the quarantine measures are not quite as strong right now, but still, nevertheless, a good portion of the population and a good portion of the world is still closed and shut down. What does that mean then for empathy, if we're social distancing? And as Christians, one of the really, kind of intimate aspects of this for us, is that many of us are still not able to gather in churches, in the traditional sense yet. I mean, my church this past Sunday, we finally met in a parking lot. But this kind of reframes the question of empathy too. What does empathy look like at a distance? I think this is the way that you've been putting it a little bit, Nathan.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah, distance empathy. Is it a real thing?

Cameron McAllister: Is distance empathy a real thing? So not only do we have the challenge of a supposedly global perspective, and, of course, I'm speaking from my local context, Nathan, I am in a melting pot of an area, I'm in the Atlanta area, and it is extremely cosmopolitan and very international. Well, you have all these multitudes of these disparate ways of life, all these very different ethnic backgrounds, all these very different religious assumptions and philosophical assumptions, all mixed together in the same city. And, of course, this characterizes a lot of our modern cities too. What does empathy mean in that context? And now, if we're all sheltering in place or if we're practicing social distancing, that throws another complication into the mix. So yeah, I think it's a bit precarious when we think about empathy at the moment. I mean, let me ask you this, Nathan. Would you agree that empathy is being regarded a little bit, especially by non-Christians, as sort of a central virtue these days?

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah, and actually the intrinsicness of the necessity of that virtue was one of the things popping into my mind when you were kind of doing the introduction to the topic idea there. So I would agree with that. However, when you're speaking about it, jog my memory, in Sherry Turkle's book, I think it's 2015, Reclaiming Conversation, she, Sherry Turkle teaches at MIT, she's done a lot on sociological impacts of social media and technology, robotic care, artificial intelligence on human interactions, probably best known for her book Alone Together: How We Expect More From Technology And Less From Each Other. And so she has decades of research on these types of interactions, but in that 2015 book Reclaiming Conversation, I believe, I think she says there's a 20, I can't remember it was 20% or 40%, let's go 20%, because that would be better, a 20% decrease in the empathy of college freshmen.

And so this is a sociological study done in connection with people's technology usage and she tracks how the more you're using a digital platform or interface, the lower your actual measured empathy is for something that is mediated through a technological experience. And this is not a religious or an intentionally religious or philosophical work. This is just a secular look. She's often invited into school systems and saying, "Look, these children don't care about each other and it's a form of bullying of excluding people and all sorts of things. And, really, it's not that they're trying to be mean but they have no ability to understand reality from somebody else's perspective." And so she's working on it from that angle. But then with what you're saying and then if you weave that in there, and this is pushing toward this idea of, is distance empathy a real thing?

Well, maybe it's a real thing, but it is inferior, if you just want it to look at it from a research base. What it is that we're producing might not be genuine empathy, that we aren't actually able to understand other people's experiences in some way because of our modern communication.

Cameron McAllister: Yeah, it's weird because if empathy is a way to enter into somebody else's shoes and understand that person's experiences, then that would seem to necessitate what you were talking about, actually hanging out with somebody, getting to know them, and increasingly, I don't know, it's been my experience when I look at those kinds of calls for empathy that what's talked about is a little bit more abstract. I don't get the impression, for instance, that when I hear about what we need in our world is just a greater call to empathy, to enter into the experience of the other, I don't immediately think, "Oh, so sit down and have a meal with them, knock on your neighbor's door." What comes across is usually, "Well, you should read more books that are maybe outside of your realm of comfort. Maybe read more international literature and watch more international films."

So, in other words, this goes back to what Turkle was saying, the call to empathy so often is toward a mediated experience, one mediated by technology, right?

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yes.

Cameron McAllister: So yeah, you watch, I don't know, Slumdog Millionaire and that's supposed to function....That's a crude example, but, well, maybe now I'm understanding a little bit more about the hardships of some folks in India. Well, maybe in the most superficial sense, but have you actually talked to somebody who's from India and maybe spent time with them, heard about their family history, what they've gone through, have you shared a meal with them? Have you tried different kinds of food? In other words, so many of these experiences are mediated and they're disembodied in nature and this was all pre-COVID as well.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Oh, absolutely, yeah. But I think, just to push into some of the terminology you're using there, let's think about that word of “mediated” or “media” that in the physical sense of that medium, and I recognize that there's diversity now and whether or not the Latin singular because of the way the etymology of it into English, you can use it as a singular or plural, we'll set all that aside-

Cameron McAllister: I was so worried you wouldn't mention that.

Nathan Rittenhouse: That's just going to lower your heartbeat. So when I speak, the air is the medium through which my sound waves travel. So it goes from my mouth to your ear, but it goes through the air. There's a medium that it travels through. And when we think about the media, as people often refer to the big idea of the media, we're often thinking of news. But a reporter then is mediating an experience to you. When you watch the news, you listen to the news, you read the news, you're having somebody else between you and the actual event who is transmitting that information to you, and you can actually have multiple layers of that, of the reporter spoke to the eyewitness who witnessed the thing and who told the reporter who telling you, and then you're hearing it through your channel. So we're actually more steps removed from many of the things that happen in the world when you think about it than it feels like on the surface. There's a greater distance there and we're trying to overcome that, just to point out that that's there when we're talking about this.

Cameron McAllister: Well, one way to look at that I think practically is, okay, if we weren't addicted to the news before, we are now and we're frantically checking, or you find yourself a little jaded and maybe you're tired of the news. But it's certainly when the pandemic was really starting, when it was declared a pandemic, we were often glued to the news. But you notice the disparity between the world news, global news, and not just your local news, but the news that's happening in your neighborhood.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Mm-hmm.

Cameron McAllister: I mean, the events that are actually characterizing your own day to day existence, that's another level of mediation. I mean, it's not only that these facts are being conveyed to us through journalists and, of course, through various different forms of technology and transmitted to us but it's also that we're very far removed from many of them. That doesn't mean we shouldn't care or be invested, but that does mean that what's happening on the ground, say, in London doesn't necessarily have always immediate massive ramifications for me here in Georgia. But something that my neighbor is doing two houses down actually could have an immediate effect for me, and yet I'm much more likely to pay attention to what's going on in London than I am to Bob two houses down the street.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Well, I just want to point out here, this is not a critique of how the news and the media works. It's a wonderful thing. It's a description. It's not a critique. It's just saying it is what it is and let's recognize it for that. It's wonderful that you can know what's happening in London in real time. I mean, that's great. But maybe some of the question, and I realize I cut you off there, but let me throw this into your thinking there, and this is going to sound harsh, but is there a limit to the human capacity to have empathy spread out across so many issues all the time? So we're not critiquing the news, we're describing it. What about the human capacity of actually caring for the other? How do we talk about and grapple with the limitations that we have of how many issues can you be passionate about? I guess, not because you're a corrupt person, but because you're human. How does that play into this?

Cameron McAllister: It's such a wise question, Nathan, and I would love to hear you weigh in on it as well. But I've mentioned this book on the podcast before. I'll say just a few things about this. As human beings, we have finite capacities and that extends, of course, to the realm of empathy as well. So in his book, Care of Souls, which just won I think three different major awards, but Harold Senkbeil, who is a long time pastor, the book Care of Souls, it's a book for pastors but it's packed with so much wisdom that I think it's applicable to a lot of other folks as well. But he points out as he's writing to pastors, he says, "If you're relying on your own store of empathy and compassion when you're dealing with people and just the turmoil that they go through in their lives, the problems in their lives, just the brokenness and the sin, if you're hoping for this," he said when he was a younger pastor, he just hoped that he had this beautiful sense of compassion, overflowing, and empathy overflowing, he said, "I very quickly realized, I just run out.”

"I'm just ran on empty really fast. I'm a human being." You're in big trouble because, I mean, you're a limited finite human being. You only have so much empathy. You only have so much compassion. You can only be all in for so many causes. Your passion only is so intense before you just start to wax and wane because you're just a human being with limited capacities.

Nathan Rittenhouse: You're not excused for being a non-caring jerk.

Cameron McAllister: Absolutely not. But what he's talking about is really relying on the infinite mercy of the Lord and savior rather than your own sense of compassion, which, let's face it, some days you have days where you really are overflowing with compassion and you can look at a certain photograph, you can hear a certain news story and tears well up in your eyes. Other days let's face it, you don't care or you're numb or you're just tired.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Or you yourself are in a ton of trouble.

Cameron McAllister: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, so, in other words, you're a human being. So the notion that we have that, we're limited in our capacity for compassion and for empathy, is just a necessary recognition for, I think, emotional maturity. But nevertheless, many people who see basically, empathy as really the highest level of virtue, they come to rely on it in a sense that it's unrealistic and unhealthy. And so then you have this notion...One of the key phrases of our age is, of course, virtue signaling, right?

Nathan Rittenhouse: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Cameron McAllister: I think that's where some of this comes in, where it's not just that you want to be seen as righteous, but you feel this intense obligation, this pressure, that's always on you to try to spell out for the world how very caring you are, how very compassionate you are. And everybody seems to be demanding that of you too. And I think that's where some of that comes from. But then again, you run up against these limits, but, I mean, I often think about that passage in the Screwtape Letters as well. I don't remember the precise wording, but remember Lewis inserts into his senior devil as he's instructing the junior devil on the subject of tempting a human subject. He says, "You always want to try to keep your person focused on distant problems, distant events, and keep his eyes away from the needs that are right in front of him."

There's a lot of wisdom there because I think oftentimes so called “righteous causes,” and again, we have to say this carefully, not that it's not important to care about world affairs and what's going on across the world. Of course, it is. But there is a sense in which sometimes these so called “righteous causes” can function as really sort of distractions and it has to be said, we can spell out the fact that we care a lot without doing much, whereas the stuff that's right in front of us, which would actually cost us something, we actually have to have human contact, we actually have to really do something for somebody, those are the things that we're more hesitant to do and also we may not get much recognition for it as well.

Nathan Rittenhouse: So that brings me, there is another movement and which one it is isn't really important right now, but it was in that same vein of here's something that you should be passionate about and you should really care, and they lay out the case for that, and then as a byproduct of that empathy, what you're supposed to do is to share this video on social media and vote for people who will do something.

Cameron McAllister: Yeah, right.

Nathan Rittenhouse: And it just strikes me as fascinating that actually that requires not a whole lot from me and it exports the responsibility to other actors to actually get it done. So it's frustrating because we live in this time in which empathy is the greatest virtue, but then what happens when there's a tragedy and somebody says “thoughts and prayers?” Then the same group who holds empathy as the highest virtue says, "Well, that's ridiculous. What we need is action, not thoughts and prayers." So I'm not exactly sure where I'm going with this other than to say that in a crisis, we recognize that something is missing.

Cameron McAllister: We're running into that practical tension because, on the one hand, empathy is the highest virtue and it's spelled out in fairly abstract terms. It's kind of outsourced as you say. But it's loudly proclaimed for everybody so that they see that you're doing something, but, on the other hand, when an actual crisis arrives, there's this recognition that real, tangible, physical help needs to happen. I mean, the Christian vocabulary I would use for this is that it's a time where we need to be the hands and feet of Christ and minister to others. And you can't minister to those who are distant, distant, distant shores usually, immediately at least. You have to concentrate on where you are and on the people around you.

And that's where I think another interesting, fascinating feature actually of this pandemic is. So now that so many of us are effectively landlocked and our calendars are cleared and we're not traveling as much, sadly, but also in a really cool way, we're getting to know our neighbors, many of us for the first time. I know this is not the case for you, Nathan. But in some ways, I'm a typical modern guy, so it is for me. And it's been delightful. We're actually getting to know the people in our neighborhood. And I can honestly say we've become more invested and I can honestly say we've actually been tangibly, physically helping those right around us quite a bit more as a result of the changing social conditions. And so that's been another way. And so I would say that's strengthened my empathy capacity a little bit.

Nathan Rittenhouse: All right. While you're going down the Christian jargon phrase, I've been mulling around the idea in my mind. I think this makes sense, generally speaking. I have never said it out loud before.

Cameron McAllister: This is the place to do that.

Nathan Rittenhouse: The intensity of our prayer comes from the intimacy that we have with God and the intimacy we have with those with whom we're praying for, that the dual nature of those intimacies generates the intensity of our prayer. And I think that's part of what we're saying there, is that we're invested in things in a different way. Anyway, that's a rabbit trail we don't need to go down. But I want to say that I think the way that you think about this will change the way that you pray for people in situations and events.

Cameron McAllister: But as we find ourselves in the kind of changing social environment right now that is our world I think it's good to consider only just how we adjust, but how we can use this as an occasion to grow and maybe outgrow some of the more immature mindsets regarding entering into the experience of others. And here's where I want to bring in the word “global” again.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Great.

Cameron McAllister: Because, in our conversations, Nathan, you've had a bone to pick with that word. I think a really good one. So, on the one hand, it's a perfectly legitimate term. Let's just rattle off some sociological facts really quickly as a qualification. I mean, we live in a world that is increasingly a world where it's a globalized world. It's a shared market. In many ways, those traditional borders and boundaries, they're less pronounced than they were in the past. But, on the other hand, we still can't change the fact that we're all local people in a specific context and that specific context shapes us and modifies what we say. And so let me put you on the spot, is it possible to even talk in terms of a global perspective on some of these things?

Nathan Rittenhouse: Well, the limitation that we're running into is the fact that we are embodied creatures. I mean, the physical aspect of who it is that we are is a key portion of what it means to be human and I think that's one of the things that you see in kind of a transhumanism movement. What does it mean for me to not be constrained by my physical body because it gives me a different perspective on things? But, yeah, I'm stuck here because I want two things to be true at the same time. One of those is though that if I think about it, how many people do I really know? And then I think about, I mean, this isn't like social media followers and Facebook friend list, how many people do I really know that I could tell you their life stories and that I feel like I understand them and they understand me?

And then I look at that as a percentage of the global population. And I there are people in the RZIM team who I just have wonderful conversations with because our lives on some ways would look so similar, but in other ways, our life experiences, I mean, we're Christians, we are the same age, similar family structures and our lives are so, so, so, so different, that to know someone, I want that to be good and true and it is, but just to recognize the uniqueness. I guess what I'm saying is, yes, we can have a global perspective as far as meta trends go. But, on the other hand, I'm really challenged when I started thinking about how much can I know? And so, I don't know, we keep coming back to this idea of limitations, intention, I think, but what's at stake here is that if we don't get this worked out in our minds then we end up with fake empathy, which doesn't lead to action and isn't healthy for anybody.

We almost don't care at all by caring too much about too many things. We don't want to sound like empathy is a bad virtue. I mean, it really is a good thing, but I'm afraid that feeling like I'm globally aware of these things almost produces a synthetic empathy in me that misses. Because I'm a Christian, it misses the heart of what I know is possible in human relationships. That's a bunch of verbal rambling right there. Help me sort that out.

Cameron McAllister: In other words, if we take into account our limitations as human beings, then we will also recognize that we only have the ability to help and to work with a certain number of people whom the Lord has placed in our immediate path. And so, in a sense, it's really trying to understand what the Lord is asking us to do with what we have, with the powers that he's endowed us with, and within our specific contexts. So maybe in global terms, as far in the eyes of the world, that looks like a modest level of investment, but, really, practically speaking, what it would mean is a deeper level of investment in those around us or in those within our reach, a deep level of investment into those who are within our reach, with a specific level of focus and a level of care and a level of empathy that's realistic and that's healthy. Then it's real tangible, less synthetic, more tangible, more real, because you're actually reaching out and helping real people.

Nathan Rittenhouse: But less efficient.

Cameron McAllister: Less efficient. Well, Harold Senkbeil actually hits that really hard in the book, and I mean, that could take us off topic. But it basically says, "Yeah, when you're talking about it, there's no way to apply a stethoscope, basically, to some of the spiritual outreach that you're doing. It's not measurable in those terms." So that means that modern sort of strategies of efficiency are not necessarily applicable here. Now, a lot of people are going to be a little nervous by that.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah, empathy is not an economic unit.

Cameron McAllister: It's not an economic unit. And also, what you've just spelled out really well actually is the disparity between the way things look and the way things actually are in reality. And we live in a world where it's really, really possible to look, to basically put on your empathetic costumes, so to speak, and broadcast this loudly through all these channels to so many people and actually do nothing for a real individual.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah.

Cameron McAllister: And, on the other hand, it's possible to be deeply invested in the lives of individuals and then the world not see any of that. So there's the weird disparity.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Okay, so let's think who could be a good role model for us in sorting this out, Cameron? Hmmm, anything come to mind? So, I mean, it would have been easier for Jesus to broadcast the sermon. Instead of the Sermon on the Mount, the Sermon on the Moon would have been way cooler for a couple of reasons. But one of it would have been its global reach. I mean, if Jesus had preached from the moon, more people would have heard. But there's a distance there. He didn't. It's not the Sermon on the Moon. I kind of like that. I just made that up. But it's the Sermon on the Mount.

Cameron McAllister: I like it.

Nathan Rittenhouse: He came and lived on earth, and think what part of his ministry was physically touching individual people, not like, "Oh, he touched their heart," but reaching out and putting his hands on people, touching on eyes. Jesus embodies for us this global heart. For God so loved the world, that he sent his son, actually, to a very specific place to do a very specific ministry in such a way.

Cameron McAllister: In a specific body.

Nathan Rittenhouse: In a specific body. Incarnation fits very deeply in here, right? In a specific body, but in a way that was supposed to go viral and be contagious and that the reach to the world was through the individuals working in their locales. And that's the way that the church grew. So we have the model there for this level of global empathy and concern, care, and compassion with hyper localized action. Actually, I think maybe what's going on here is there's a confusion about who does what job. So if my global concern causes me to despair and to no action, that means that I'm actually trying to do God's job.

Cameron McAllister: Hmm. That's good.

Nathan Rittenhouse: That's his level of worry and I need to be faithful to the things that he's asking me to do. So let's let God quarterback some of this stuff and we run the route that we're assigned. Whether or not the ball is thrown to us, that's the right thing to do. So we have to be aware of the overall nature of the game and of the globe but we don't want to miss out on the obedience that we have to run our part of the play because we're trying to do God's job of how it is that he should run and organize the world. So there's something in there. And maybe that's why Jesus is just so captivating because he has that hyper local with total design, globalist, cosmic compassion that is so attractive. So, all that to say is that the idea of empathy, I don't know that we've come up with any grandiose solutions. If you've been thinking about this through a Christian lens, these conclusions will be immediately obvious to you.

But I do think that what's helpful about this conversation that you started for us, Cameron, is that sometimes I'm just taking things that show up in the everyday vernacular of our culture, like the term “empathy,” and thinking for a moment, what does that actually mean? And what does that actually look like? That we find that as Christians, actually, something that the world is recognizing sort of as good, but grappling to articulate and live out well, actually, we have that modeled for us very well in the person of Christ. And so I really enjoyed this conversation because, A, it was a fun chat on a specific topic, but also just a reminder of the value of slowing down as a Christian every once in a while and being reflective about the things that are happening in our community and in the words that we use because those will fundamentally alter the way in which we interact with God and reveal his heart to the world around us.

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