Wednesday, April 04, 2007
Today's Discussion Question
My post about using simulated disabilities to increase empathy has, to my considerable surprise, gotten quite a few comments from people saying that these are specious exercises, and that compassion's better than empathy.
Part of the argument seems to be that empathy exercises may lead people to believe that they understand something they really don't. Well, sure: but having your own episode of any given illness or injury could have the same effect. ("I know just what you're going through, because I broke my leg once too!") My take on the subject is that even with the best will and imagination in the world, we learn things through direct physical experience that we couldn't learn other ways. However, I seem to have been outvoted on this.
By the way, I'm defining empathy as understanding gained through shared experience, and compassion as a more generalized desire to ease suffering. If someone else is defining these terms differently, please let me know.
But even if we accept the premise that compassion is better than empathy -- and I'm not sure the two can be separated so neatly -- we're still left with the question of how to make people more compassionate; and, specifically, how to overcome barriers to compassion.
In my volunteer work in the ER, I've seen plenty of medical caregivers who are very compassionate towards patients with some problems (stroke, heart attack, broken legs) but decidedly compassion-challenged towards patients with other problems (substance abuse, psychiatric issues, life complications from poverty). These caregivers aren't bad people or unskilled providers, but their compassion was either limited to begin with or has become limited through exhaustion: compassion fatigue is a real and pressing issue. The limits of compassion often seem to fall along class lines, which brings us back to empathy. It's often easier to feel compassion for people who are like us, because we identify with them.
So how do we instill compassion for the person who isn't like us: for the stranger, the other, the outcast? More specifically, how do we do that in a nursing school, medical school, or clinical setting where people are very busy, may have no time or inclination to immerse themselves in the humanities ("No, really, you'll have much more compassion for transgendered people if you go watch Boys Don't Cry"), and are struggling to master difficult technical and physical skills?