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Surrounded by Tragedy: Empathy, Blame, or Can’t Be Bothered?

7 Tips for Coping with Life After a HurricaneRecently, many natural disasters as well as mass murders have happened in our country. If you have not been in the midst of one, you’re lucky. You’re safe; not in danger; not vulnerable — at least not right now.

As you learned what was happening to the people in Houston, Florida, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Napa Valley, Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs — what was your reaction? How did you feel? Were you empathetic, blaming or simply can’t be bothered?

Let’s take a moment to review those responses to better understand the differences between them.

  1. Empathy/Sympathy  You imagine yourself in their shoes. You are shocked. You are saddened.  You feel their pain. You hurt for them. Your heart embraces them. You stand with them. You are compassionate. You are concerned. You care. You wish you could do something to alleviate their ordeal.
  2. Blame – Oh, it’s so easy to blame. If they had done this, if they had done that, they wouldn’t be in the situation they’re in. Rather than garnering sympathy and support, you point the finger at them, providing reasons why you won’t and shouldn’t help. They made their bed, now let them lie in it.
  3. Can’t Be Bothered Why are you even bothering me with this? It’s not important. It doesn’t involve me. That happened to them. They got what they deserve. I don’t have time for this.

Is it possible to vacillate between empathy and blame? Yes, not at the same moment, but still yes.

You can feel compassion for what people endured. And still, you can have moments in which you find reasons to blame. They should not have built so close to water. They should have known what the dangers were. They should have … (point your finger at whatever irks you). Notice when we place blame in such situations, it is generally on “they.” A whole group of people deserve their fate. And in so doing, we distance ourselves from them.

And then, we are exposed to a story about a particular family’s loss. We see a man searching through the wreckage of his home, hoping to find a photo, a memento, a long cherished keepsake. And we feel our empathy returning. What must it be like to lose everything in one quick swoop? How awful that must be! What can I do to offer assistance? To provide hope?

Is it possible to vacillate between empathy and not being bothered? No! Those positions are diametrically opposed. The tragedy has happened to them, not to me. None of my concern. Couldn’t care less. Those people are not my people. So why fret? And why would they expect me to aid them? They should do it on their own!

Does not caring make us terrible people? Not necessarily. Why not? When the media makes us cognizant of every disaster in our country, in the world, how should we respond? If we’re empathetic to everyone, how could we even get through the day? Yet, if we distance ourselves from our shared humanity, how can we even pretend to believe that we are caring human beings?

But, as with all important questions in life, there are no easy answers. Sometimes we distance ourselves from other people’s problems; sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we withhold, sometimes we give. Yet, one thing is sure. If we are in a leadership capacity — the head of an organization, the manager of a network, the Commander-in-Chief of our country — it is imperative that we think beyond our tribe. We must put a lid on our id. And reach out with goodwill, supplies and resources that are at our disposal.

At the end of our days, we will always be measured by the size of our hearts.


Surrounded by Tragedy: Empathy, Blame, or Can’t Be Bothered?

Linda Sapadin, Ph.D

Dr. Linda Sapadin, psychologist, success coach and author is proud to announce the publication of her new book, Overcoming Your Procrastination: College Student Edition – Advice for 6 Personality Styles available on Amazon. Now more than ever with remote learning, this book is a must-have. If you’re a perfectionist, dreamer, worrier, crisis-maker, defier or please, grab your copy. No longer a student? Get my book How to Beat Procrastination in the Digital Age – 6 Change Programs for 6 Personality Styles. Visit to subscribe to my free e-newsletter. Contact her at

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APA Reference
Sapadin, L. (2018). Surrounded by Tragedy: Empathy, Blame, or Can’t Be Bothered?. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 14 Nov 2017)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.