Empathy Is Harmful, Compassion Is Helpful

In the early 1980s, I worked at Oppenheimer & Co, a medium-size stock brokerage firm. At year-end, employees were evaluated and given bonuses. However, for some, the news was otherwise; they were fired. John, with whom I was friends, was fired. This came quite unexpectedly to John who had envisioned a lifelong career at the firm.

John, distraught, took to tears. John’s empathetic friends were quick to console him. I didn’t. I saw him as selfish, focusing on a small disappointment instead of being grateful for his good fortune relative to 99% of others living on this planet. I eventually came by and congratulated John at now having all sorts of opportunities he hadn’t considered before his firing. As well, I thought we could figure a way John might wrangle some termination payments from Oppenheimer. But John would have none of this talk of making the best out of current circumstances. He wanted to continue wallowing in self-pity. He wanted empathy, not compassion.

From my perspective, John was not in any immediate financial difficulties. He was a talented guy who could easily find another Wall Street job. As he didn’t have a cancer protruding out of his ass, he had much about which to be grateful and happy. His sadness was about being fired, an event that seemed real as the self is obsessed with the past; not letting John accept it as passed. John was a prisoner of his self. That was sad.

Empathy is harmful, compassion is helpful. When someone is distraught, it is their self that has upset them. Empathy acknowledges the self’s thoughts and feelings which encourages us to take the self seriously, allowing the self to continue wreaking havoc upon us. Alternatively, compassion dismisses the self and efforts to helping others make the best of their circumstances. Simply, empathy is consoling someone who’s upset about having lost their job which keeps them from finding a new job and compassion is helping them find a new job.