The Loss Of Empathy
by David Todd McCarty | Thursday, November 17, 2016
Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling. We feel the hurt and fear and pain when it’s there. We feel the pride and joy and freedom when it’s there. When did so many of us lose the ability to do that, especially with anyone outside of our immediate social circles?
“You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
—“To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee.
America is a culture that has worked to socialize people into becoming more individualistic rather than empathic for over 200 years. In fact, America is the most individualized society in the history of the world. It’s every man for themselves. We pride ourselves on it in fact. It’s part of what makes us American! We don’t need nobody else. We’ll do it ourselves. We don’t care what you think. We know what we’re doing.
Nowhere is this more true than in our public discourse, and by extension, our politics. Nobody listens anymore. We’ve all become insulated in our own little bubbles and feedback loops. There are no more Walter Cronkite’s. No source for information or even common language. We can all just go online and find the news that suits our world view. It doesn’t matter if it’s factually accurate or not, it just matter that it feels true to us.
I’m not immune, in fact, at times I’ve been a central part of the problem, at least in my community. I rant and rave at what I see are failures, corruption, immorality, bigotry and hate. I do so, and the people I’m railing against get rightfully defensive. They stop listening to anything I have to say and all I am left with are those who agree with me.
So my world shrinks and I become more insulated, and therefore less likely to empathize with those on the other side.
I’m not suggesting a solution just yet. I’m just as lost as anyone. But whenever I feel the righteous indignation rising in my chest, I’m trying now to take a deep breath and think to myself, “How could I change that person’s mind?”
I know it won’t be telling them they are wrong.
I know it won’t be arguing with them.
I know it won’t be presenting them with facts that dispute their opinions.
So what do we do?
“Compassion is the radicalism of our time.”
— Dalai Lama
I think we begin by offering up how we ourselves are blind, how we are more or less broken.
This is a common theme in Christianity, Alcoholics Anonymous and much of the work of the comic Marc Maron (a fellow crank if ever there was one).
How do we get people to lower their guard and listen? We begin with confession. We begin with ourselves.
Forget the religious implications for a second. I don’t care if you’re a Baptist, a Buddhist, or an atheist. I’m just saying that when someone is railing down on us, no matter if we’re wrong or right, we will cease to listen, we will raise up our guard and grab the nearest weapon at hand.
But when we’re humble and broken we are more likely to elicit a human response, even from someone we consider an enemy.
I should point out that this his pretty much goes against every bone in my body. Like most people, I prefer to be right than wrong. I prefer to be in a position of power, not weakness. I prefer to hold the high ground and bask in the light of righteousness.
But humility, powerlessness, grace and love seem like the only true antidote to hate.
As I was driving to work today, I was listening to a Pete Holmes podcast and he repeated the Graham Greene quote, “Hate is just a lack of imagination.”
David Foster Wallace, in his 2005 Kenyon Commencement address said it this way,
If I’m in a more socially conscious liberal arts form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic being disgusted about all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV’s and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, forty-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper- stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers. And I can think about how our children’s children will despise us for wasting all the future’s fuel, and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and selfish and disgusting we all are, and how modern consumer society just sucks, and so forth and so on.
If I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn’t have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It’s the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of
adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.
The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.
It’s easy to ascribe the worst intentions to people we don’t know, or don’t understand. I do it daily, hourly even. You’ve seen it in my posts. I’ll be just looking at someone in a restaurant and thinking, “Look at them with their stupid clothes and smug faces. You just know what person is a douchebag.” I don’t know anything about that person. I’m completely judging them based on how they look. I do it all the time. I’ve done it publicly. I’ve done it regularly.
I’m not saying I’m necessarily always wrong, and sometimes my imagination causes the hate, but I’m clearly not always right as I don’t have any evidence to back up my theoretical evaluation. Why do I do it? Partly to amuse myself, but I think mostly because I get to feel better about me. I’m clearly not like him. I’m better. Sometimes, I’m sure it’s simple jealousy.
But sometimes it was funny. You have to give me that.
Largely, I’m the person who is intolerant of people who are intolerant and there’s simply no way to win that argument.
I’ve often wondered why this election meant so much to me? Why am I, someone who has stated publicly many times that I don’t even really like people, so worried about the future of other people? What’s in it for me? Why do I care? I’m not one of the communities at risk. I’m at the top of the pyramid. I’m white, anglo, Christian, straight, American man! I’m on top of the world!
“True compassion, is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
— Martin Luther King, Jr.
I think it’s empathy that drives me. I feel other people’s pain. It’s probably why I keep to myself as much as I do. It’s too hard to deal with other people’s problems because I internalize them. I make it too personal. If I can’t do something about it quickly and painlessly, then I really don’t want to be involved. A lot of people, including members of my own family, think I’m emotionally cut off. What I think is the reality is that I’m emotionally withdrawn. I get TOO emotional about other people’s pain. I get TOO invested. I can’t just listen and shake my head. I feel the need to do something about it and since most of the time I don’t have either the time or the resources to effect change, I withdraw. It’s easier not to care.
But I do care, so it oozes out. It often begins as a single thought I want to convey. Maybe just one sentence, and then the rage builds and I spin out of control with dark, sarcastic humor and words intended to inflict damage, and you get a 1500 word rant. It doesn’t even matter if anyone reads it. It matters they I get so worked up. It’s not healthy.
A friend writes to me, “It’s like walking down a path with all these packages strewn on the path. Naturally, you begin to pick them up and carry them only to find after awhile that your back is killing you from the weight of it all. You have to learn to only pick up the ones with your name on it.’
So, I’m going to work on only carrying the packages with my name on them for a bit until I’m strong enough to carry a few others without yelling at the squirrels. I’m going to work on my imagination as it applies to other people’s SUV’s and imagine a better life for them. And I’ll continue to make an effort at being the change I want to see in the world.
I’m sure five minutes from now I’ll check Twitter and see a post about a new police shooting and think horrible thoughts about the police and those who support them so blindly, or I’ll go to lunch and quietly hate the two guys talking too loudly about Trump and imagine what goes on at their monthly White Power meetings.
But I’ll try to remember to stop and put that particular package back down, use my imagination to create a better story for those two men, and I will carry on.
No one said being part of the Resistance was going to be easy.