Coping with Trauma — 15 January 2013
Empathy is our catalyst to moral actions

A national tragedy unites communities in sharing the pain, loss and disbelief about the unimaginable cruelty that led to suffering and loss of life. Most caring beings are impacted by the sights and scenes of trauma caused by nature or human actions. We feel deep compassion for the sufferers – but is feeling empathy enough?

Empathy is the emotion evoked in us when we imagine ourselves in another person’s circumstances. The tender, compassionate response to what we think the other is feeling, such as fear in the face of a life-threatening situation, is not empathy. Resonating with what the other actually feels – is true empathy.

Since we can never be the other person or truly experience the exact magnitude and meaning of his/her loss, we can only imagine what we assume we would have experienced had we been in their place. Feeling loss, grief, devastation, despair or pain is only the first step in connecting with others and fostering human bonding.

Most of us feel angry, outraged and violated when innocent children and adults are murdered. It is an assault not only upon the victims and their families and immediate community, but also upon all of us. We may feel communally and individually responsible for these atrocities because our moral societal code of a caring and loving humanity has not been enough to prevent these tragedies.

In “Is Empathy Necessary for Morality?” Jesse J. Prinz of Oxford University states, “Perhaps empathy has a place in morality, but maybe other emotions are much more important such as guilt and anger.” He adds, “When confronted with moral offenses, it’s not enough to commiserate with victims. We should get uppity.”

This call for action born out of our outrage about evil deeds is one way to initiate rectifying the wrong and reducing the likelihood of its recurrence. Using our outrage productively can result in the wisest and timeliest actions intended to protect the innocent and safeguard our moral grasp in managing our society.

Some say that the hurt and anger will subside as time goes by and that we owe it to the victims and their families and all our future children to create a safer society now. For the sake of preserving human equilibrium, it is true that intense emotions do fade with time. Also, staying overwhelmed, grief stricken and distraught jeopardizes our health, wellbeing and efficacy.

In order to achieve change based on universal moral principles, we must use our empathy to feel the agony of others. We must get angry and become proactive in taking practical steps to secure a safer and healthier environment for all.

Use your empathy to ensure a better life for all:

  • Understand that your empathy connects you to the suffering of others and bonds you to them.
  • Allow yourself to feel angry and even outraged as it triggers the thrust for corrective moral actions.
  • Uphold your rights for a healthier society.


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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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