Chesterton Award Winner: Empathy is not Charity

As a die-hard sports fan who loves competition and loves to watch almost every sport, it is sometimes difficult for me to watch games in the proper perspective. When viewing a sporting event, there is often a “next man up” attitude within the audience, where if a player gets injured or has a poor outing, the audience immediately forgets them and focuses on who or what’s next, relegating athletes to mere objects for our own satisfaction and enjoyment. While the rise of fantasy sports in the last decade has certainly had a major contribution to this form of thinking, a better answer might be an increase in the trait of empathy, but a lack in charity in our world. Sure, you may hurt for that athlete who broke his wrist in a collision and now has to miss the remainder of the season, but will he ever cross your mind a day, or even an hour, after sustaining such an injury? I suspect most people will cast that player off, as their entertainment value is now next to nothing for this attention-seeking, charity-deficient audience.

In Patricia Snow’s recent essay, “Empathy is Not Charity,” she relays the idea that the majority of people in today’s society would rather attempt to feel what another person is going through so they can better understand the pain the other might be feeling, rather than trying to truly help them or make an actual difference in that person’s life. Snow continues to describe how she does not believe Catholicism or Christianity can continue in this frame of mind, as the truth will eventually be lost in a pool of shallowness among “human vampires.” I believe that while empathy on its own is not a bad characteristic to have (as I would much rather be a person of empathy and be someone who can relate to other people’s emotions, rather than someone who can not), I believe that there needs to be something more that goes along with it, as empathy on its own is not sufficient enough to follow in Christ’s footsteps. Just as St. James said, “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also,” empathy is also dead without charitable works and words stemming from such empathy.

To put this into perspective, Snow’s idea can be applied to how many parents choose to raise and discipline their kids today. Many attempt to empathise with their children to remain on their child’s “good side,” and allow them to make mistakes and decisions that may not be morally correct or in the best interest of their child, rather than disciplining them and teaching them moral truth. Furthermore, empathy falls short of the bar when people perform momentary service projects or volunteer work. While the volunteers might make a credible difference in that day(s), Snow argues that the individual(s) are only performing these acts for personal gain so they can get to experience what someone else might be feeling, in order to then show other people how “charitable” they are. A truly charitable person, however, would work to create a real difference that could last for a significant amount time to come a less fortunate person’s life.

Recently, Greg Schiano was offered and accepted the position to be the head football coach at the University of Tennessee. However, many years ago, he served as an assistant coach under Joe Paterno at Penn State University, where he knew, but remained quiet about, sexual allegations against former coach Jerry Sandusky on minors. In a massive bond of outrage and “empathy,” messages flooded social media, demanding Schiano be fired the day he was hired to Tennessee, in response to his lack of action involving Sandusky. One such tweet read, “as a father of two boys, you will unequivocally lose this 43 year Volunteer fan if you hire Greg Schiano in light of what he knew about Jerry Sandusky. This is completely against what Tennessee stands for.” Together, the Internet was able to convince the university to part ways with Schiano, and many outsiders applauded the boldness of the Volunteer community to take a stand. Lost in all of this commotion, however, is the very real fact that many people are still struggling to cope with the effects of the crimes Sandusky committed on them many years ago. Few, if any, who took a stand against Schiano, I believe, made any substantial difference in the lives this situation most effects. While it is right and just that many sexual allegation stories, such as Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Louis C.K., among others, are coming to light in recent weeks, the truly charitable thing to do would be for more to be done to aid those who will be permanently affected by these heinous sins, rather than just focusing on bringing the “bad guys” down.

Continuing, the best way to step away from the shortcomings of a life of simply empathy to the fullness of a life of charity is to come to terms with your own humanity, determining who you are, and how you can better improve yourself to follow in the footsteps of Christ. Monsignor Guardini wrote, “that I cannot be forced out of myself, not even by the most powerful enemy, but only by myself, and not entirely even by me, that I cannot be replaced, even by the noblest person; that I am a center of existence…” A journey of self-reflection can lead to a cause-and-effect solution: when you discover your own self worth and dignity, you realize you can never be replaced by anyone else. Hence, others also can not be “replaced” or have the exact same experiences as you, so there is no possible way to be rightly empathetic towards someone. Rather, forming a decision based off of objective moral law is the only way to be truly charitable and kind to another totally unique human being. In doing so, “that which is truly real will arise from the rich, varied expansiveness of our existence, of our being fully Christian, and will lead us to the One who is truly real(3rd excerpt).”

Before, I was somebody who had a next man up attitude, until I injured my ankle last year and had to have surgery and rehab in order to get back to full strength. Now, I am more aware of the struggles others go through when something you take for granted is so easily stripped away from you. I try to move away from empathy towards charity by giving some sort of advice or kind words to someone I see in the hallway or community with an injury. In Archbishop Vigneron’s recent letter, Unleash the Gospel, he continually calls for an increase in “joyful missionary disciples,” and refers to the good habits of apostolic boldness and an attitude of gratitude these disciples must have. Possessing a grateful disposition and having the confidence in God and yourself to proclaim the good news requires one to look with empathy on others, and moving to help and support them as we seek to find the truth in Jesus together. In this case, actions do speak louder than words, and nothing is worth more than doing unto others what you would want having done to yourself.

Leading a life full of empathy, while on the surface, may appear as good and moral when we help out a neighbor in need, but in reality, it lacks substance and only leads to a temporary high that must rekindled time and time again. As Christ became fully human, we also must become fully accepting of our humanity and understand that we can not simply become another person; rather, doing onto others in both word and deed what is moral and lawful, even if it is not the most popular or eye-catching thing to do. Upon doing so, we could find a life of such happiness and fulfillment one would think heaven is on Earth.