Am I an Empath or a Rational Compassionate? Read All About It!



Just when I thought it was safe to take on the topic of empathy I run across two reviews regarding a book by Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology, titled “Against Empathy.” After reading Shai Held’s and Simon Baron-Cohen’s book reviews in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ 1/2/2017), and New York Times (New Your Times, 12/30/16) respectively, it seems to be a case of semantics.  Personally, I do not see much difference between empathy and Bloom’s preference for “rational compassion.”

Here’s the definition of empathy as I understand it: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.  As a therapist, I need to be able to understand how my client feels within or about an experience.

According to the reviewers, Bloom defines empathy as “the act of feeling what you believe other people feel—experiencing what they experience.”  As a therapist, doing as he says would narrow my encounter with the client.  I do not join my clients in their experience. I understand how they feel because I have awareness of how I would or how I did feel in a similar situation.

Empathy, like rational compassion, does not separate emotions from mind. Humans are not and never have been head or heart. We are head and heart and gut.  We are whole.  We are unable to separate our feelings from our minds.  My mind and heart must be engaged when I am listening to another.  His argument against empathy in favor of “rational compassion,” harkens to the age-old dispute within the research community between objective and subjective approaches and which are more valid.  What does rational compassion even mean if not empathy?  We human beings always bring all of who we are to the task at hand whether we are aware of it or not and be it for good or ill.  We are, in fact, capable of more damage when we do not bring awareness to our emotions.

Indeed research has borne this out.  Falling down this rabbit hole, I found an article in The Atlantic, about a study by Alexander Soutschek from the University of Zurich, which has shown that the right temporoparietal junction, long linked to empathy is also the area of the brain responsible for self-control (The Atlantic, 12/6/16).  As Ed Yong wrote in the article, “The same part of the brain that allows us to step into the shoes of others also helps us to restrain ourselves.” Sounds to me like empathy is reason and compassion combined!

To my mind, we have precious little empathy or rational compassion going around these days.  Far too few of us are making any effort at all to understand those who are different from us.  What prompted my interest in writing about empathy in the first place was listening to a piece on All Things Considered (NPR12/22/16), about reading fiction and cultivating empathy.  Psychologists Keith Oatley and Raymond Mars have found that those who read literary fiction possess more empathy and tolerance for people different than them than do other people.  In fact, other genres do not provide the same benefits.

Reading literary fiction allows us to enter the world and inner life of another person or persons.  As author Jennifer Haigh noted, “It’s really the best technology we have to get inside another person’s mind.”   In addition she says, “There is no better way to see through somebody else’s eyes than by reading fiction.”  I whole-heartedly agree with her and I also agree with her description of the divisive nature of the election as “the ultimate failure of empathy.”

Like Jennifer Haigh and author Nickolas Butler who recommended various books to read as a way of cultivating empathy, I have compiled a list of books for you to read. Since 1995, I have been writing down the books that I read on the back and inside covers of my journals.  I spent the better part of yesterday looking at my journals and coming up with a list of mostly fiction that I found to be excellent when I read them as indicated by my three arrow pointing up notations, or “excellent read,” or “right up there with Trinity” (by Leon Uris that I read in 1992) or “as good as Kristen Lavransdatter (by Ingrid Undset).


I cannot provide you with a more detailed book review as, in many ways, reading fiction is like doing therapy for me.  Therapy is like a container between therapist and client.  What happens within the session percolates and changes each person throughout the week.  (Do you notice the fermentation imagery?)


Sponge and starter fermenting

You sit with and allow the material from the session to work on you, but you do not go out and talk about it as that dispels the energy.  I am similarly transported when I read fiction.  When I look back on my list of favorite books images from them spring to my mind, but I am unable to talk about them in a detailed or linear way.

Full disclosure: When I first listened to the NPR piece, I immediately thought of author Amy Greene. Reading her books gave me a whole new perspective and a lot more empathy for the plight of people in Appalachia.  As I wrote alongside the three up arrows I gave her book, The Long Man, riveting!

A book may be brilliantly written or not.  What makes a good book is how it affects the reader.  And each reader brings his/her life experience to the reading, encountering the book from a unique perspective.  Just like therapy.  A therapist may or may not be brilliant.  It’s the therapist’s relationship with the client that makes the therapy work or not.  Mutual respect between therapist/client and writer/reader is non-negotiable.

And so it is with food.  A perfectly prepared dish may or may not satiate the diner.  Personal tastes impact the encounter with the meal.  But a good chef always prepares a meal with respect for the patron.   Cooking a good meal is mutually satisfying.  As my husband says, he can always detect if I didn’t put the love in it.  Going one step further, I am similarly transported by cooking.  I often experiment with recipes and can become so involved in the cooking and then the eating that I forget to write down what I did or take pictures of the results.

I hope you are able to find some of my choices for top reads and that you enjoy them.  NB—I’m writing when I read the books not when they were published.  You might detect an Oprah’s Book Club influence. And here’s to growing more empathy in the New Year!


1995The Heaven Tree Trilogy by Edith Pargeter.  I ‘m guessing this is the book that inspired me to begin writing down what I read, so that I would remember.  This book remains one of my “all time favorites.”  Another good one from that year, The Truest Pleasure, by Robert Morgan.

1996Little Altars Everywhere, by Rebecca Wells.  I also must recommend a book of poetry, Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy.  But my favorite read that year was Cry the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton.  I wrote alongside it, “Right up there with Trinity and Heaven Tree Trilogy!”

1997Jazz, by Toni Morrison, though I did write alongside it, “Song of Solomon still my favorite,” which she published in 1977.  I also loved The Book of Ruth, by Jane Hamilton that year, but not as much as A Map of the World, which I’d read previously (speaking of riveting).

1998Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier and A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving.

1999The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant and All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy.  Talk about very different authors!

2000A Lesson Before Dying, by Ernest Gaines, Jewel, by Brett Lott, and Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat.  This year is notable in that I read so many (45) and so many good books, so I had trouble choosing, but the best of that year was In the Fall, by Jeffrey Lent—beautifully written and captivating.

2001—Speaking of beautifully written and captivating, The Voyage of the Narwhal, by Andrea Barrett, Amy & Isabelle, by Elizabeth Strout, and Stones from the River, by Ursula Hegi.  This was another great reading year for me.

2002Slammerkin, by Emma Donahue–still my favorite of her books.   The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver.  In Sunlight in a Beautiful Garden by Kathleen Cambor.

2003Peace Like a River, Leif Enger.

2004A Widow for One Year, John Iriving and The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd.

2005The Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks and Kite Runner, by Kahled Hosseini.  This was another good year where I am having a hard time limiting my recommendations.  Here are three more: Fall on Your Knees, by Anne Marie MacDonald, Where No Gods Came, by Sheila O’Connor, and Icy Sparks, by Gwen Hyman Rubio.  If you happen to teach Child Development these three are worthwhile reads.

2006Plainsong, by Kent Haruf and The Life of Pi, by Yann Martel.

2007 & 2008 I mostly read non-fiction and neglected to write down the fiction I was reading.  What I did write down I wasn’t very excited about, so will not include here. I will save the non-fiction for another time.

2009Eventide, Kent Haruf and Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri, Electric God, by Katherine Ryan Hyde, and Olive Kitterage, by Elizabeth Strout, which received an enthusiastic EXCELLENT!!

2010Water for Elephants, by Sara Givens, The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova, and Sylvanus Now, by Donna Morrissey.

2011The Help, Kathryn Stockett, and Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, Caleb’s Crossing, Geraldine Brooks, and The Double Bind, by Chris Bojahalian.  But I was most enthusiastic about Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese, about which I say, “one of the best books I’ve ever read.”

2012The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides and The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman.  I was also very enthusiastic about both of these giving them 3 up arrows apiece.

2013—Hard to beat 2012 and I had a dry spell, but liked Moodtide, by Dawn Clifton Trip and The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey.  I must note that what I did love reading that year were two memoirs of loss by Joan Didion, Blue Nights and The Year of Magical Thinking.

2014—Another great reading year!! The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer, The Long Man and Bloodroot by Amy Greene.

2015Someone and After This by Alice McDermott.  I loved these and I was a reluctant reader of Alice McDermott because I think I’m the only person in the world who did not like Charming Billy.  I’m guessing because it struck too close to home.  I’m glad I tried her books again.  I also LOVED Shirley by Susan Scarf Merrell.  And Jeffrey Lent did not disappoint with a beautifully written, A Slant of Light.

2016—Last but not least—God’s Kingdom, by Howard Frank Mosher and The Secret Scripture, by Sebastian Barry both excellent reads.

Thanks for your patience slogging through my list.  Enjoy!




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