Saturday, November 14, 2015

When Empathy Doesn't Work:The Paris Attacks

The recent bombings in Paris are maddening, sickening, disturbing and deeply troubling. The attacks targeted innocent unsuspecting people attending a concert, a soccer game, dining or simply enjoying a warm fall Paris evening at a local cafe or bistro.
And or course, it is natural to respond to these brutal senseless killings with fury, hate and a desire to inflict revenge upon those responsible. 
ISIS has taken responsibility for the carnage, so our anger and calls for retribution are directed at them...whoever and wherever they are.
I understand this....I too, feel pain and anger as well as disgust and worry, though of course, my pain and anger is only a fraction of what is experienced by those who have been directly impacted by the losses, or by the threats of further loss. 
My visit to Paris last month, my first visit to France, to the very hospital that is across the street from one of the cafes that was hit by the terrorists, has heightened these feelings,
I feel a connection to Paris that seems to grow stronger with each passing hour and each story that I hear or read about the tragedy. 
Yesterday, I sent an email to the physician and his assistant who generously consulted with me during my visit to Paris, letting them know my thoughts were with them.
I imagined what they might be feeling, and I was moved to reach out to them to let them know that I support them. 
This, I believe, is an attempt to express empathy. Hopefully, my attempt to express empathy was received and was experienced as helpful, as emphatic. If so, it's an example of how empathy can "work".

However, I am having difficulty understanding how humans, the terrorists who both planned and executed these acts of violence, could act so ruthlessly, with such blatant disregard for human life.
I can't even imagine a human brain, a human heart, a human soul could allow someone, anyone, to act in this way. 
In this instance, empathy fails me. It's missing. It doesn't work. Perhaps, I am missing something?


  1. Thank you Michael for putting to words the feelings I've been unable to describe. I find myself struggling to make sense of this violence, to find a reason, yet these actions are so far beyond my ability to comprehend that, instead, I am left feeling angry, confused, and still searching for meaning. As I was attempting to process this tragedy with my children earlier today, I realized that I had no easy answers. How could I help them see these events from a different perspective? I could only describe my own inadequate attempts to cope with such tragedy, sharing that, when I struggle for a "why", I must try very hard to listen, listen to understand, at least as much as I might try to inform or convince others into an understanding. My hope is that, in listening, I may find something, anything, to reassure me that the humanity in which I've always had such faith will triumph.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Beth. I, too, believe that listening to understand is a fruitful approach when we are faced with confusion, uncertainty and disbelief. Remaining open and curious is usually a good thing. At a time like this, when faced with what feels like pure evil, it is harder to be open and vulnerable. Perhaps we need to allow ourselves some time to grieve, to support each other, to heal a bit, before we can more actively seek understanding. I, too, am hopeful that, in the end, humanity will triumph. Thanks!


    2. Peter Simon shared a post by Omid Safi, a Professor of Islamic Studies. I resonate deeply with his call for a a period of grief and mourning, not only for the people of Paris, but also for others who have been victims of terrorism and hatred. See:

      I also resonate with Safi's call for a caring, compassionate approach. He, like Beth Jenkins, emphasizes the value of taping into and nurturing our shared humanity and encourages us to focus on the lights of humanity that burn witin us all.