What does it take to be a foster parent? A 2018 investigation by the Boston Globe found that 2,000 Massachusetts foster families had stopped accepting foster kids into their homes in the previous five years. No doubt some of this falloff is because of the infuriating bureaucracy foster families face. And some of it is because they don’t get the proper support they need from family and friends.

It’s also true, though, that some people are more temperamentally suited to the demands of foster parenting—demands such as, handling kids with severe behavioral challenges or who have been traumatized by other adults in their lives and have difficulty forming emotional attachments. In a recent article in The New Yorker about people who have genetic mutations that don’t allow them to feel physical pain, Ariel Levy profiled a middle-aged Scottish woman named Joanne Cameron, who not only doesn’t notice if her hand is burning or her foot is bleeding, but her “negative emotional range is limited to the kinds of bearable suffering one sees in a Nora Ephron movie.” Which is to say, Levy explains:

When something bad happens, Cameron’s brain immediately searches for a way to ameliorate the situation, but it does not dwell on unhappiness. She inadvertently follows the creed of the Stoics (and of every twelve-step recovery program): Accept the things you cannot change.

This seems to have given Cameron a special advantage during her 17 years as a special education teacher and as a foster parent to four children. As Levy recounts:  

“I had a Down-syndrome girl—who was actually quite high-functioning—and she would come in every morning and she’d walk up to me and spit in my face, and say, ‘I hate you, Jo Cameron! I hate you!’ And I’d stand there and say, ‘I don’t like being spat on, but I don’t hate you!’ ” Cameron told me, smiling. “Oh, I’ve had some very difficult students. I’ve been bitten; I’ve been spat on; I’ve been kicked!”… One of [the foster kids] stole all their vacation money from the cookie jar. “She did take things for the sake of taking them,” Cameron said pleasantly. “It took us years to catch up! When eight hundred pounds is gone from your vacation kitty, it takes a long time to recoup.”

The vast majority of the population will never be able to limit their negative emotions to this extent. But there are some things we might be able to learn from her about how feeling pain—and even feeling someone else’s pain—may not necessarily give us a greater ability to care for others. 

In an article in the Wall Street Journal based on his book Against Empathy, Paul Bloom writes, “If we don’t empathize with others, don’t feel their pain, why would we care enough to help them? If the alternative to empathy is apathy, then perhaps we should stick with it, regardless of its flaws.” But then he argues that we can help others—indeed, we may be better able to do so—if we do not take on their pain as our own. He cites neuroscientists Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki in a 2014 article for the journal Current Biology:

“In contrast to empathy, compassion does not mean sharing the suffering of the other: rather, it is characterized by feelings of warmth, concern and care for the other, as well as a strong motivation to improve the other’s well-being. Compassion is feeling for and not feeling with the other.”

The question of how we can best help those in need—of what kinds of attitudes and temperaments are necessary to do so—is one that the late Gertrude Himmelfarb considered extensively in her work on the Victorians. In her great work “Poverty and Compassion,” Himmelfarb, who passed away a few weeks ago, wrote: 

“In its sentimental mode, compassion is an exercise in moral indignation, in feeling good rather than doing good…. In its unsentimental mode, compassion seeks above all to dogood, and this requires a stern sense of proportion, of reason and self-control.” 

To be “genuinely compassionate,” in the Victorians’ view, “was not to be selfless; it was only to be true to one’s ‘best self’ and the ‘common good’ that included one’s own good. This was not a heroic goal, not the aspiration of a saint or a martyr. But it was eminently moral and humane.”

Indeed, to the extent that we think of foster parents and those in difficult “caring” professions as people who must completely empathize with and become indignant at the injustice felt by those they care for, we may turn these roles into those of martyrs and saints. That, in turn, will make them more difficult to fill.