Emotional language getting a little too personal
“I feel your pain.”                                                           U.S. President Bill Clinton

Vancouver Courier
July 12, 1998

The first time President Bill Clinton used this oft-repeated phrase was in the early 1990s when he spoke to the American public about economic difficulties. I’m sure he meant no offence by it, but if you consider it carefully, “I feel your pain” is an absurd and highly presumptuous thing to say.

How can anyone claim to know how another person feels? Each of us is unique, with unique attitudes, beliefs and feelings. For me to say that I know your mind robs you of your uniqueness. Moreover, if I claim that right, then I must grant that same right to everyone else, and I’ll be damned if I’ll let someone presume to tell me what I feel, or claim the right to suffer for me.

Take the scene in the movie Good Will Hunting, after an emotionally shaky therapist (Robin Williams) agrees to treat a troubled young mathematical genius. During their first meeting, the teen (Matt Damon) espies a picture the therapist painted years ago. Based upon the choice of colours, the genius dissects the man’s life and concludes that he laments marrying the wrong woman. Williams’ character somehow resists the temptation to pound him into dust.

At the next session beside a pond, the therapist delivers a moving monologue to the arrogant little prat. He says he knows nothing of his life and has no right to presume. We learn that the therapist’s wife died of cancer and that he loved her unreservedly.

The movie has its weaknesses, but these two scenes transcend the film to speak to our trendy societal conceit of being able to feel someone else’s pain. Sometimes grammar can betray a statement’s ludicrousness: “I feel your pain.” However, suppose Clinton had said, “I empathize with you.” How many would recognize it as virtually the same sentence? Not many, I’m afraid. Like “decimate,” “empathy” is one of those specific words that has had its meaning debased through overuse and misuse.

According to Oxford, “empathy” is “the power of projecting one’s personality into (and so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation.” This psychological term was first used in 1903, and the object of contemplation referred to in the definition is a work of art. Empathy describes the sublime oneness that overcomes an observer as he looks at, say, a painting or statue.

For example, one could feel a strong empathy when looking upon Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream, which expresses the terrifying loneliness and despair of depression. It’s a one-sided relation: the object evokes feeling and the observer feels that evocation; the viewer does not impart any feeling to the picture.

Among people, however, “empathy” is all but meaningless. If we could feel others’ pain we would be superhuman, as in the classic Star Trek episode “The Empath.” Dr. McCoy, Spock and Capt. Kirk are trapped on a planet, and before they can leave one must volunteer to be tortured to near death. In the end McCoy sacrifices himself. He is saved by a female, an empath, who physically takes his wounds upon herself. As she absorbs McCoy’s pain, he proceeds to heal.

This is hardly what Clinton had in mind when he said, “I feel your pain.” He could not have meant it literally, but he didn’t why use the word at all? He should have said, “I share your pain;” that is, “I sympathize with you.”

According to one definition in Oxford, sympathy is: “The quality or state of being affected by the condition of another with a feeling similar or corresponding to that of the other… Also, a feeling or frame of mind evoked by and responsive to some external influence.”

“Sympathy,” “compassion” or “commiseration”—take your pick. They all mean the same thing in this case, and unlike “empathy” they fit the context. So why is empathy used so carelessly?

The sad fact is that North American culture is wallowing in a sea of contrived sentiment: the more you appear to be one with the suffering of another, the more tolerant and understanding you make yourself appear. It’s as if “empathy” were being redefined as “the highest form of sympathy.”

Sympathy (sym + pathos—“with suffering” or “with feeling”) isn’t good enough anymore, as if maintaining a distance from the person implied less than true support. Thus “empathy” has degenerated into another touchy-feely weed cluttering our English lexical garden.

To get an idea of how overgrown this weed has become, turn to the July 4 Globe and Mail commentary by Susan Delacourt. Her point is that Canada should stop trying to strengthen its national identity; instead Canada should embrace its unique “empathic ability” to help reduce others’ suffering.

She writes: “Is there anything more quintessentially Canadian? We are the reigning experts at imagining how other people think and feel, even about us. We can put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes at the drop of a maple leaf... it goes well beyond tolerance or ‘embrace of diversity,’ the quality the national spirit boosters proclaim.… Empathy is the powerful heart of imagination, creativity and aversion to violence.”

Delacourt clearly does not use empathy properly. She cites its psychological origins but applies the word indiscriminately to justify pacifistic liberal politics. She claims that empathy is the driving force behind peacekeeping, human rights, multiculturalism and bilingualism. “Here at home… the national dramas all revolve around appeals to empathy,” she writes.

She acts as if she wants to change Canada’s motto from “A mari usque ad mare” to “I feel your pain.” That’s a little too presumptuous for me.