Empathy Vs. Compassion

Food for Thought

To some extent, it has become a routine to walk down East Broadway to Seward Park in the late afternoons with my wife, after wrapping up our remote work. We stop by Ice and Vice for a cup of ice cream.

It was only a few months ago that this simple joy seemed foreign to us, not because of the pandemic but because of my wife’s rheumatoid arthritis. It started at the beginning of the year and became progressively worse. She was in pain all day despite the high dose of painkillers. Before going to sleep, I had to marinate her in topical pain relief products. Finding a sleeping position that hurt the least was like solving Rubik’s Cube; if it relieved pain in one area, it would hurt others. I had to sleep on the couch because she needed the whole bed to find the best possible position.

She needed my help nonstop. During the worst period, she couldn’t even change her sleeping position on her own; I had to get up from the couch several times during the night to turn her over. Because she knew I was sleep-deprived, when she woke up, she would find a position that hurt the least and stay in that position for hours until I woke up—sometimes in bed, other times in a chair. I would find her, early in the morning, quietly sitting in the bedroom with nothing to do.

Thankfully, the worst is now over. The medication seems to be working. She is now out of the wheelchair and able to walk, although I still have to hold her arm.

It’s a good thing that I’m somewhat autistic. I was able to take all this in stride without getting overwhelmed. If my empathetic response was normal (not Spock-like), I don’t think it would have been possible. Even ER doctors must go home to rest.

John Elder Robison, who wrote the popular book about autism, “Look Me in the Eye,” received a treatment that made him more emotionally sensitive, but this lead to divorcing his wife because he could no longer take living with someone severely depressed.

The level of empathy does not necessarily correlate with that of compassion. The more empathetic you are, the more easily you become overwhelmed by the emotions of others, which in turn means you have less room to be compassionate for them.