Empathy is a good thing, but there are some issues with compassion that we should pay attention to.
For example, empathy can pull our compassion in so many different directions that our efforts to help the world become so diffuse as to have no impact. Empathy also tempts us toward anger, hate and violence in the fight for justice and righteousness. Empathy also causes us to seek emotional catharsis over self-sacrificial love. Lastly, empathy, as a stress reaction, can lead to burnout, chronic anxiety, depression and physical exhaustion.
So those are some of the problems with empathy. But before move on with this series I'd just like to pause to note how social media has made all these empathy problems so much worse.
Before the rise of social media our empathy was local and neighborly. The scale of compassion was personal and face to face. Empathy prompted us to respond to the needs of our immediate community. Tragedies struck, but these were the shared traumas faced together by the community. Drought. Tornado. Fire. Economic downturns. Plague. Floods.
Nowadays we experience these traumas on a daily and universal scale. Because of social media and cable TV compassion never gets a day off. If you are a compassionate person not an hour passes without the news bringing you images or news that breaks your heart or fires your outrage.
Instead of aching for our neighbors and local community our hearts break for the entire world 24/7.
And while that is a good thing, there is a social, emotional and physical cost to the continual collective freakout caused by the advent of social media. Emotionally, we are not wired to carry the sufferings of the world 24/7. The scope, scale, and unremitting suffering of the world is too much for one heart to carry day after day, year after year. Empathy in the age of social media can ruin us, spiritually, emotionally and physically. But what else can a compassionate person do when the next tragedy strikes?
All that to say, I think the problems we noted in the last post about empathy have been massively amplified by social media.
As social media hits us with tragedy after tragedy and injustice after injustice our empathy is pulled in a million different directions, causing our impact on the world to become more and more diffuse.
Social media has also become an outlet for moralistic aggression, a place where we fight, call out, and denounce the Bad Guys in the world. Empathy-fueled social media is often anger-fueled social media.
Social media also captures and traps our empathy. Our empathy causes us to write, post, Tweet, Like, re-post or re-Tweet about the latest tragedy or injustice. By posting on social media we get an emotional outlet, but rarely does this "virtual helping" translate into concrete acts of sacrificial love for people we care for face to face.
Finally, if empathy is a stress reaction then chronic exposure to tragedy and injustice on social media is, perhaps, the number one reason we're all so stressed, depressed, and anxious. Christians have become emotional wrecks.
In aching online for the entire world 24/7 we've lost the local and intimate scale of empathy where compassion is sustainable, healthy, relational, tangible and effective.
And maybe that's where the kingdom of God comes in.