Over the last few years there has been a lot of talk about the need for empathy in our world. Empathy is generally defined as an emotional understanding of the suffering of another. It's emotionally connecting with the feelings and thoughts of another person. If you want a tutorial you can watch Brene Brown's video on empathy here. It went viral last year.
And while empathy is good, I think it also has some huge weaknesses. Empathy is all about feeling the "feels" of somebody else. If you watch the Brown video you will see that a heavy part of the theme of empathy is actually not taking action. To attempt to take action, in this way of thinking, is to avoid actually connecting with the emotions of the other. Attempting solutions is just as avoidant and emotionally disconnected in this view, as offering a spiritual platitude like, "Everything happens for a reason." There is some truth here of course. Many folks in our world rush in with solutions without a clear sense of the plight of our neighbor. Often we bring little help. In many situations the better alternative would be to practice some active and empathetic listening.
But, we might contrast Brown's version of the world with Yale professor and psychologist Paul Bloom. Watch his 2 minute clip here. Bloom argues that all the feelings based emphasis of empathy is actually bad. Bloom thinks empathy does more harm than good in that it engages our emotions too heavily. In Bloom's view empathy often causes us to rush into impassioned action that is based on emotion rather than rationality. Empathy might be good when you are dealing with a friend one on one, but when you attempt to approach real world problem solving (hunger or homelessness) with empathy what you end up with is a whole bunch of feelings that lead to actions that can be really destructive. Essentially he thinks that empathy actually fuels moralism. Bloom argues for us to stop it with the whole empathy train and instead focus on the rational side of our brains when it comes to real world problem solving.
So who is right and what the heck does this have to do with social enterprise? The truth is that they are both right and wrong. I tend to side with Brown a good deal more than with Bloom, but I distrust the fact that her model seems to be fine tuned to small scale intimate relationships. There comes a point when action is needed and is often needed on a larger scale. I suspect that Brown would acknowledge this. What we need in social enterprise is a third way.
We need a methodology for bring about the good that we hope to see in our world that slows us down enough that we seek first the understanding of our neighbor rather than rushing in with unhelpful actions or emotionless advice. Yet, we also need at times a proper distance emotionally from a series of problems so that we can create rational solutions that are not based solely on our emotions. At some point action will be needed. I think the concept of Christian compassion and the story it is rooted in gets us to this 3rd place. Let's look at what Christian compassion is and then turn to what it might offer social enterprise.
Compassion is the desire to not only feel the suffering of another, but to enter into that suffering in a meaningful way. Compassion is the willful choice to actually suffer alongside one's neighbor. It's being with rather than just feeling with. We find this concept arrive at its fullness in the Christian story of the God who comes in Christ and enters into the muck and mire of our world. God doesn't just emotionally feel our pain or empathetically understand the injustices of our world. He enters into them in ways that are shocking. He isn't as rationally framed as Dr. Bloom would idealize. A focal point of this kind of intimate engagement is of course Christ's work on the cross. It is there that Christ demonstrates the fullness of his love for the world, but also the fullness of his understanding of the suffering that this world has every day. God doesn't just say, "I feel your suffering in my core." He suffers with us. We call this activity "Christ's Passion". So, to have com-passion means that we enter into the suffering of others, not just emotionally, but physically. And yet, even in Jesus a kind of rational boundaried distance is maintained.
Jesus, while powerfully engaging the human experience exercises restraint. He doesn't heal everyone and he doesn't seem to get overwhelmed emotionally with the suffering of others. I wouldn't call him rationally "cool" in the way Bloom talks about it. Jesus is clearly a person of both passion and engaged emotion, but he seems boundaried. He reaches out with deep feeling to those who are hurting, but he takes action with those he can. He balances opposing the oppressor with helping the oppressed. He walks, touches, and heals but he also goes off to recharge and rest. It's a kind of emotionally engaged patient urgency. Consider the rich young ruler. Jesus defines for the man the one thing that is barring him from entering the Jesus Way fully (the man's great wealth), but when the man cannot move forward and walks off, Jesus doesn't pursue him. Jesus understands the man's tension but doesn't get wrapped up in it. He has boundaries. Empathy in the hands of a person without boundaries can be nearly as unhealthy as the cool rationalist who only wants to act without feeling or first seeking understanding.
Jesus also doesn't fall into the emotional trap of pretending he IS those he helps. He doesn't seem to overly identify as one of the poor. You never hear him say that he is the blind man or the leper or the tax collector. But, he does listen to them, feast with them, and aid them with healing, pointed conversation, and meals. He identifies with the suffering of those he serves, but he also finds moments to rejoice greatly, attend feasts, and sit with children. His culminating act of compassion is of course his Passion and yet he doesn't get stuck there. He is not stuck on the cross forever. Jesus refuses to allow us to dwell only in suffering because he is resurrected. There is a trajectory of future hope in his ministry as well. It doesn't just sit with us. Christians are not permitted to wallow in the suffering of others or only called to empathize. They are called to enter that suffering, lovingly alleviate it where they can, but remain able to experience hope and joy. Jesus does indeed climb down emotionally into the hole of humanity, so to speak, but he is constantly pointing hopefully out of that hole. He identifies with others in spectacular fashion but also seems to move them along in hope. There is a kind of distance here I think. If Jesus is truly human, then even He must need boundaries as all of us do. Jesus maintains a sacred balance of emotional understanding and engagement alongside physical action and justice resolution. Social enterprise needs the voices that bear this story of this man who holds the center.
Social enterprise seeks to solve real world problems with solutions that are healthy and equitable both for those attempting to help and those who are recipients. Healthy social enterprise refuses to capitalize too heavily on its audience's emotions (think: videos of children running after aid trucks) but it also refuses to solve problems from places of such emotional distance that it fails to understand those it seeks to help. If Christians are going to engage social enterprise in a way that allows us to do it well we are going to need a way to balance empathy with cool rational action. We need endeavors that begin by actually seeking to patiently understand the experience of the other (empathy). Brown is right, there must be non-solution based resonance first. But, we also need action based experiments that seek to alleviate suffering when possible that are not driven solely by our emotions (rational action). It is in Christ that we see these things brought together in fullness. As is so often the case it is God (or the idea of God if you prefer) that allows us to hold two seemingly opposed strategies in a kind of sustainable tension. It is this sustainable tension that Christianity offers social enterprise.