The Arrogance of Empathy

In an attempt to get this thing back on track, I'm posting something I wrote last month.

Putting oneself in another's shoes, attempting to feel what they feel, to see things from their perspective -- this is generally seen to be a positive trait -- something that makes the world a better place.

The thing is, when a person is going through a grieving process, probably the last thing they care about is that you get it. You don't get it. The sadness that you feel for their pain is nothing compared to what they're going through, and while it may be instructive to try to put yourself in their shoes, to try and understand, it seems to me it is the height of arrogance and self-congratulation to bring it up.

In fact, in my darker moments, I find it hard to see the quest for empathy as anything more than an emotional masturbation -- enjoyable in the moment, but a selfish expenditure that is not productive in the slightest.

Maybe there are some people who feel a need for kindred spirits, feel the need for someone who's been there before. I'm not that way. Nobody I know is that way, to my knowledge. In pain, I turn inward and derive strength from the silent presence of loved ones.

I work with a guy who lost his daughter. Another co-worker told me about it and I've been stewing over it ever since.

I don't know how long ago this happened, but I feel for him. It makes me sad to think of the hole in his life. But I know that I would not welcome anyone intruding on something as deeply personal and painful as the loss of my child. I'm a veritable stranger. What kind of jerk would I be to place my expectations on him? So, I will continue to talk with him as if I don't know this one terrible thing about his life, even as I want to... I dunno, give him a hug or something?

I guess that empathy is a virtue but a clingy need for validation isn't.


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