Can Pain Cultivate Empathy in Us?

Research suggests yes, and even the unlikely can grow. But our suffering Savior is the best model.
Can Pain Cultivate Empathy in Us?
Image: J. Galione / Getty Images

I had forced myself to get out of bed to go to a small party at a friend’s house but soon found myself regretting it. I was cornered by an older mother who embarked into a long monologue on her sorrow over her children growing up and leaving her arms empty. Another friend flanked me, her wide eyes assessing me in panic. Just six weeks prior, my infant daughter had passed away from a heart defect. My arms had been physically aching since her sudden loss, a common phenomenon many mothers experience after losing a baby. My friend understood how painful this conversation must be to me, even though I smiled and nodded my way through it.

What gave one friend insight into how I was feeling at that moment? Empathy. Empathy, unlike sympathy, is not merely feeling sorry for another, but it is putting yourself in another’s shoes. It is envisaging what it must feel like to be in their position. She was able to imagine what it felt like to lose a child, show up at a party, and be in this conversation, so she felt my pain along with me. She, along with many others, made a lasting impression on me. In my hour of need, they showed me the true value of empathetic compassion.

Not everyone has empathetic friends. In fact, there is a growing concern that Americans are becoming less empathetic. This is troubling because empathy is a cornerstone characteristic of a healthy society. More than that, it’s the very marrow of Christian love.

Alarmingly, incoming college students after 2000 were found to be up to 40 percent less empathetic than past generations. It only takes a quick Google search to find articles bemoaning the effects an unempathetic generation can have on our political, societal, and religious communities. Thankfully, we know from Scripture that we can grow in virtues like empathy, and there is now scientific research that confirms this.

First, we know what many observe—those who have undergone painful circumstances are often empathetic. In my case, mothers who had also lost a child were some of the first to reach out to embrace me after we lost our daughter. It wasn’t hard for them to put themselves in my shoes because they had walked in them already.

One question we should ask is whether we need pain in order to be empathetic. Without having the sensation of physical pain, people with a condition known as CIP (congenital insensitivity to pain) have a hard time gauging the discomfort level of others without other indicators—such as emotional cues. Can they empathize with those who can? Yes, but they are also prone to significantly underestimate pain levels. I see myself in that research. It can be difficult to understand another’s suffering without having gone through a similar situation.

But it would be a mistake to think that we must experience the same kind of pain to be able to empathize. Other studies show stress or discomfort alone makes a difference: psychological stress helped men feel more empathy for those enduring painful medical procedures and influenced them to share more money with a stranger. In another study, participants whose hands were plunged into a bucket of ice water were more sympathetic when given a scenario with someone in distress.

But the other side of the coin is this: Does a life of ease and comfort make us less empathetic? Sadly, it appears so. Psychologists Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner from the University of California, Berkeley have been studying how wealth affects behavior. Their research demonstrates that you are more likely to cut people off when driving, lie and cheat, have less compassion for those with cancer, and participate in unethical behavior when rich.

Is that just because the unethical are more likely to become wealthy? Some of their research suggests otherwise. Participants from a variety of socioeconomic positions were given a task that had them compare themselves to people either better or worse off than themselves. Afterward, they were shown a jar of candy. Piff shared the results in a TED Talk,

“We explicitly told participants: ‘This candy is for children participating in a developmental lab nearby. They're in studies. This is for them.’ And we just monitored how much candy participants took. Participants who felt rich took two times as much candy as participants who felt poor.”

Let that sink in for a minute. Thinking of our comparative wealth causes us to take more candy from children. What does that tell us about human nature? Perhaps it is as simple as this: Personal happiness doesn’t always lead to compassionate or even ethical behavior. As Piff summarized, “But what we're finding is that the wealthier you are, the more likely you are to pursue a vision of personal success, of achievement and accomplishment, to the detriment of others around you.”

However, we shouldn’t assume that research indicates that we can’t change for the better. Piff tells us that their research suggests that differences of compassion and empathy aren’t necessarily innate. In his words, they are, “malleable to slight changes in people’s values, and little nudges of compassion and bumps of empathy.”

So the question is: What are good ways to nudge our values, compassion, and empathy in the right direction? Piff says their ongoing research is showing that reminding people of the benefits of cooperation and showing a short film on childhood poverty helped people become more compassionate and generous.

Some studies even show surprising results of the possibility of change in the most unlikely people. Narcissists, by definition, struggle to feel empathy, but in a study, females diagnosed as narcissists showed significantly more empathy when told to “imagine how she feels” while watching a short documentary on an abused woman. Psychopaths in another study did have the ability to empathize, it just wasn’t their default mode. The regions of their brain related to empathy looked almost normal when they were told to empathize with victims in videos.

If narcissists can feel empathy by simply trying and even psychopaths can tune into empathy, what does that say about the rest of us? Perhaps it indicates that if we struggle with feeling empathetic towards others, we may need practice. Empathy is a choice we can all make. But the more we practice it, the easier it becomes.

In Scripture, we find the command to love and care for one another. In 1 Peter 3:8 we are told, “Finally, all of you be like-minded and sympathetic, love one another, and be compassionate and humble.” Perhaps uncomfortable life experiences teach us empathy because they help us better understand another’s plight and remind us that we are weak and dependent on others and our circumstances. But we are not perfect. God’s love and compassion preceded his sending Jesus in the flesh, while we are prone to self-centered actions and do not always chose to be empathetic with others. We need God’s help to overcome our weakness.

God didn’t send his Son just to know what it’s like to be human. Jesus lived through this burdened life and died a painful death so that he could reconcile us to God. Now he intercedes for us as our High Priest, but not from an emotionally distant position (Heb. 4:15). Jesus can empathize with us in an intimate way because he knows what it is like to experience pain and weakness. He understands because he walked in these painful earthly shoes, too.

And in our pain, we are reminded of the common suffering of our Savior. When we read the command to love and care for one another, Jesus is our beautiful and challenging picture of empathy. After the loss of our daughter, my friends and family followed his example and leveraged their own encounters with trouble to feel our pain. Whether they had also lost a child, grappled with health issues, or struggled through poverty, they turned empathy into compassion.

Kimi Harris writes at kimiharris.com and is the wife of worship leader and music teacher, Joel Harris. They live in beautiful Portland, Oregon, with their three girls and a cat.

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Can Pain Cultivate Empathy in Us?