• IOWA Project

Increase Compassionate Action and Decrease Empathic Distress

Updated: Feb 2



Activist and Philosopher, Grace Lee Boggs asked, “What time is it on the clock of the world?” I’m thinking of that question as we enter Adar Rishon, the first of two months of Adar in this Jewish leap year. Adar usually signals the beginning of a period of redemption, starting with Purim and the 14th and 15th days of the month and escalating towards Passover on the 15th of Nissan and continuing to the heights of Shavuot and receiving Torah 50 days later. However, because of the Biblically mandated need to always have this season of redemption align with springtime in the Northern Hemisphere, the Jewish calendar adds an extra month of Adar absent Purim, 7 times in every 19 year cycle. So, the season of redemption needs to wait. This extra Adar feels like a fitting metaphor for where we are on the clock of the world. The global pandemic is closing in on two years and people are fatigued. There are signs of hope for relief sometime soon, but we are not there yet. Major legislation on climate change was stalled, but we still could get a win. The racial justice uprising of 2020 has encountered a lot of backlash and, yet, we have a major fight over the coming months to make sure marginalized people can vote and keep our democracy resilient. How can we keep recharging ourselves during this long winter, so that we can continue showing up as our most full selves in the fight for justice?


Rabbi Dr. Marc Gopin’s new book, Compassionate Reasoning, offers, what was for me, a new way of thinking about resilience in social change activism. Gopin, who is a teacher and mentor of mine, is a professor of religion and conflict at George Mason University and has three decades of experience working in war zones around the world. He noticed that many social change and peace activists, including himself, feel deep empathy for the suffering of people under oppressive regimes, and also experienced high levels of burn-out themselves. He then learned about the distinction between, what is called “empathic distress” and compassionate action. Empathic distress is feeling the pain of others. While an important quality, if overused it can lead to burnout and despair. Brain imaging shows it lights up parts of the brain related to negative emotions. Compassion and compassionate action, which Gopin defines as feelings and actions of benevolence applied universally, are shown to produce positive emotions and are more sustainable for social change. The author writes how most social change efforts promote empathic distress based on relating to victims of a certain injustice and this doesn't serve the longer term cause of making change. Gopin writes,


“There is now also a keen interest in and documentation of the destructive aspects of excessive empathy. This also entails the feeling of powerlesssness that is experienced while feeling the pain of others over long periods of time…Empathic distress, as it is known, stands in marked contrast to studies of compassion. Training in compassion, through the active joy of imagining the embrace of and help to others, has a completely distinct effect on brain neural pathways and is utterly different from the neural pathways of empathy and empathic distress….

This research was uncovering what for me was the key to sustainable versus unsustainable peacebuilding: trauma, burnout, despair, and withdrawal based on too much pain and empathic distress on the part of peacebuilders, on the one side, and, on the other, the joy of giving and loving as lifelong gifts of caring for others. There was a basic distinction emerging between positive and negative aspects of feeling the emotions of the other, something that has been glossed over by compassion studies in much of classical ethical philosophical and wisdom literature. Research on the distinction between compassion and empathy is just beginning, but this research will change the way we do work on healing conflicts, and it should produce a powerful link between ethics (both secular and religious) and cutting-edge science…. (p. 80-81)

I am excited about this research because we need resilience. We also, in the famous words of Toni Cade Bambara, need to “make the revolution irresistible.” The joy and emotional health that seem to come with compassionate action are crucial components in mobilizing the long-term attention and action needed to sustain dignified life on this planet. It is exactly this kind of compassionate action that the Mussar tradition, as well as many of our world religions, encourage. Gopin exhorts that this compassion needs to be applied not just to one’s own “in-group,” whatever that may be, but universally. This is exactly the challenge the IOWA Project is giving ourselves and our community members in our new Dismantling Racism from the Inside Out curriculum, in applying care in a balanced way across racial divides in our racially segregated society. As my colleague, Yehudah Webster often reminds us, we need to subvert hierarchies of care and replace them with balance of care. I see this balance of care as a practical expression of the Gopin’s compassionate action.


Adar 1, and this particular moment in the secular world, is the perfect time for the compassionate action that will create the pathways towards liberation further down the line. Now is the time to lay the groundwork in subtle ways, to create the neural pathways of redemption. I invite you to join me in turning empathy into compassionate action. For example, I serve on the Board of Directors of a grassroots community organization that works for racial and economic justice. The organizers work incredibly hard in a setting where making change comes very slowly. I empathize with their frustration and anger at the systems we are trying to change. My compassionate action is to regularly demonstrate to the organizers that I see and honor them by promptly responding to their requests for input and regularly expressing specific gratitude for their work. Adar 1 is the snow blanketing a field, it covers the grass and root systems that will sprout in the spring. Now is the time to lay those root systems by evoking feelings of compassion and undertaking compassionate action in the direction of redemption.


Chodesh Tov,

David