Picture this: You are walking around a pool deck and notice that someone is struggling to swim in the deep end. As you walk closer, you realize that they are actually drowing. At this point, you have two options. Your first option is to jump in and attempt to drag them out of the pool.  Your second option is to remain on the pool deck, reach out your hand, and hope that the individual who is drowning can swim close enough to you to grab your hand, and then you can pull them out of the pool. Which one would you choose? 

Most people would choose the first option. How do I know this? Well, when you equate the virtues of sympathy and empathy with the two options of how to save the drowning individual in the pool, you have your answer.  

In a recent podcast entitled “The Sin of Empathy,” Joe Rigney, a pastor and also president at Bethlehem College and Seminary differentiates sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is an ancient term originating from the Bible, which essentially means being compassionate towards others, or to “suffer with” others. Empathy, on the other hand,  is a relatively modern term that was developed more towards the 20th Century, meaning to “suffer in” others; really jumping into their pain.  

In the case of saving the drowining individual in the pool, those who jump into the pool are showing empathy, while those who choose to remain on the pool deck and reach out their hand are demonstrating sympathy. Which one is better? 

Rigney states that many people, in particular Catholics, believe that empathy is better. They believe that it is a step above sympathy. To them, empathy is more virtuous because you are really jumping in to be with the drowining or suffering person, while when you demonstrate sympathy you are mearly reaching a hand out to help, which many feel can construe a lack of understanding, or even betrayal.  

However, the problem with empathy, the problem with jumping into the pool to save the drowning man, is that you loose contact with the deck; you loose contact with the truth, you loose access and most importantly, you loose the ability to make an objective decision about anything that the drownining individual is saying or doing. Now, you are both drowning.  

The idea of jumping in the pool, or displaying empathy, reveals two human insticts: reactivity, and tribalism. By jumping into the pool you are being reactive, not responsive, to the situation; you have not taken the time to consider what the best method to save the drowning person is. Likewise, you are also displaying the human instinct of tribalism, otherwise known as the heard mentality, because you are joining the person drowning or suffering. Chances are, if another person walks by the dock and sees the individuals drowining, they will jump in too. In that case, we now just have a bunch of people drowning in the pool, with no solution to help the person who was drowning in the first place, and a worsened problem. 

These instincts of reactivity and tribalism have, unfortunatley, been heightened by modern day culture, where we weaponize our victims. It seems as though the only way for an individual to prove themselves in a situation such as the one described above, is to be a defender of the victim. If you ask everyone to pause for a moment, consider all options, and get the facts straight about the situation, you become an enemy.  

Now, lets relate the instance of the individual drowning in the pool to modern justice  movements such as BLM and #metoo. There is no doubt that there are victims of race, and victims of gender. The problem is that as a society, as a culture, we demand empathy. People have decided that the only way to help someone who is suffering is to jump into the pool, displaying the inherent traits of reactivity and tribalism. People have decided that the only way to help a victim of race or gender is to immediately run to twitter, and create hashtags, or to hop on instagram, and post a black square. But are these reactive and tribalistic tweets and instagrams really what your obligation to the victim should look like in these situations? Is tweeting and instagraming really proving you to be a helpful and “good person?” 

Joe Rigney states that in situations where you have been called upon to help a victim, your initial obligation is to rely on Christ, or whatever god you might pray to. However, while praying to God, you must maintain your own fundamental identity, and refuse to be completely immersed into the suffering of others. In other words, practice sympathy, not empathy. It is only then, that you can actually have the access to help the victim out of their darkness. God demands sympathy, while human beings demand empathy.