The reality about empathy is that it’s triggered and influenced by proximity more than anything else. What I mean is… consider this example: Many nights I am aware that thousands of miles out there, families starve in North Korea. In Libya I can imagine a mother grieving after a bomb from a drone has ended up killing her daughter and putting her husband in a coma. I know this but most nights I can lie on my comfy bed and fall asleep soundly. Contrast that to how I’m restlessly awake at 2AM, my mind preoccupied with a person on my caseload who ‘ll have to be sleeping on the streets or in the trains tonight. It feels guilty to be home, well fed and clothed. I’m sure if I lived in North Korea or in Libya and was more personally connected to the starving family or the grieving mother respectively, I would be able to imagine a homeless person in the South Bronx and still be able to go about my normal routine relatively well. I would not feel so compelled to imagine how it’ll feel like being kicked out of my home tonight, of having to wander around NYC with nothing but a cell phone and a bag containing a few toiletries and a signed letter by social worker requesting shelter assistance on my behalf.
Life is so much about circumstance. Where you are born, who you are born to and raised by… these two factors determine almost everything already. It might be more logical to care most deeply about the most vulnerable in the worst places, but the way empathy works, it’s actually more logical that we care most deeply about what hits closest to home.
Developing and fostering empathy to be genuine beyond our personal bubble of close family and friends is a really important skill for an effective social worker. There are limits to how far-reaching empathy can be – and almost always it’s actually not that far-reaching – and for the sake of survival and sanity, that’s actually a good thing. To be able to feel and think like someone else is an incredible gift, and for me it is the hallmark of being human and being sentient. At the same time, it can also feel like a curse.
It’s not like this empathy-induced insomnia at 2am improves the homeless person’s situation. It does nothing other than to leave me alone deep in thought and full of emotions. Internally I battle this notion that because one of my mistakes at work contributed to this person on my caseload not being able to sleep comfortably at home this weekend (or for longer periods) that perhaps I too should not be allowed to sleep comfortably. The Judgment part of my INFJ personality would argue this notion is nonsense. It assesses the work I have done and achieved with this person and concludes I did the best I could do help with what I knew and the person on my caseload also needs to take responsibility for their choices. That of course doesn’t negate my strong feelings about the case.
Empathy is a complex feeling, and there is no scientific evidence that it can ever be capable of perfectly matching what the other person actually feels. It’s why I often tell people on my caseload something to the effect of: “I don’t really know what you’re feeling or what you’re going through. I can only try to imagine best as I can, and try to support you based on that.”
What I imagine for the person on my caseload who’ll have to be sleeping in the trains tonight is the feeling that life is so unfair. How did circumstances come to be like this, even after all that I tried and did? I also imagine a feeling of hope, thinking back to the conversations had with family and friends and social worker and all other people who are trying to help. For this person, this is not the first time being out on the streets. There is a sense of familiarity, a sense of confidence that like last time, this circumstance can be overcome. There is pessimism and cynicism too, that this whole system is a revolving door and ultimately in a way is out to get people like him.
Empathy is the realization that even in most painful and stressful situations, the human spirit can remain optimistic and dignified.
But it will never escape the reality that proximity is the thing that determines whether it gets turned on or not, and how strong/weak it is when it is turned on.