The Weight Of Empathy

The Weight Of Empathy

The enormous cost of being empathetic in a fractious world, the danger of melting snow, the merits of unconditional love, the wisdom of dogs, and pumpkin pie. 

By David Todd McCarty | Friday, October 30, 2020

I do not ask a wounded person how he feels,
I myself become the wounded person,
My hurt turns livid upon me
as I lean on a cane and observe.

Walt Whitman

He’s got a mind like a sewer and a heart like a fridge.
He stands to be insulted and he pays for the privilege.

Elvis Costello

Everyone cares, but not everyone really gives a shit. 

That’s the takeaway for a large percentage of Americans who have a tendency to overinternalize the pain and misery of others. Empathy, in and of itself, is not automatically a virtue, any more than it is a weakness. It can be a powerful tool in the path to understanding, but it can also be a curse. When not tempered with practical reason, it can cause an individual to overreact to input that could otherwise be received with a certain amount of distance.

Sympathy and empathy are sometimes viewed as interchangeable descriptions for the same emotional reaction, but they are not the same. The difference in meaning is often explained with some variation of the following: sympathy is when you share the feelings of another; empathy is when you understand the feelings of another but do not necessarily share them. 

That has always seemed to fall short in explaining our ability to project or reflect on the experience of another without directly having experienced it ourself.

I would posit that sympathy is the ability to share the feelings of another, to share an expression of  sorrow or joy with another, to say to oneself, “that person is happy, and that makes me happy.” 

Empathy on the other hand is what Whitman was getting at when he described becoming the wounded person—to actually feel the pain of the wound, not just imagine what it might feel like emotionally to be wounded.

Empathy in this context involves a greater depth of projection, a more visceral connection beyond imagining an emotion, to what might be considered an alternative reality.

This is not to say that those who experience empathy in this way are somehow superior to those who do not. In fact, you could argue that such an ability is a weakness bordering on a handicap. The idea of the empath feeling others emotions so easily and freely may imply that the empath has no ability to cut themselves off from the pain of others. If that were the case, one would become overwhelmed with the pain of others, unable to process it differently than that of their own.

If you accept that there are those who internalize the pain of others at a deep enough level as to become real, you might also be able to imagine that it would be difficult to imagine how others could be so indifferent to the pain they feel. How can your neighbor not see that their Trump flag is not merely an expression of political identity or even tribal pride, but an expression of cruelty designed to dehumanize?

This is why liberals have so often been accused of being as delicate as snowflakes. They wear their hearts on their sleeves and lack the armor to deflect even the slightest insult or negative comment. In the worst cases, there is some truth to this intended insult. Liberally-minded people can be too quick to be offended, taking everything as a personal attack since an attack on anyone, is conceivably an attack on them. But liberals are not the only ones who have become hyper-aware of attacks on their tribal identity. Conservatives have an increasingly long list of complaints and grievances that they feel illustrate their status as victims in a liberal-leaning media ecosystem.

If sympathy is sharing and empathy is understanding, we might see them as two data points on the same continuum, illustrating differing depths of acceptance. But there is no doubt that there are plenty of factors that get in the way of even basic sympathy.

An inability to see another’s humanity blocks our ability to sympathize with them. When we dehumanize a group, we remove our ability to share anything with them, emotional or otherwise. In the case of deep seated racism, sexism and other forms of bigotry, being able to characterize a group as beyond your ability to care, enables you to remove their individual humanity, thereby giving you license to treat them badly without the need to feel their pain.

But don’t be fooled into believing that you have a lock on empathy and it’s everyone else who is unable to experience the emotions of another.

You can not tell me how to feel about a thing, just as I cannot instruct you as to how you should feel about your experiences. There can be no argument about how I feel as that is an absolute fact, an incontestable reality. You may choose to ignore how I feel, as is your right. You may also even argue that how I feel is predicated on bad information, but the feeling remains the same.

There are indeed instances where we have developed an emotional reaction to a situation based on our own cognitive biases, or bad intel. While not easy to do, our biases can be corrected, new input can be considered, which might change our perceptions and therefore how we feel about the world around us. But as well know, our biases run deep and are not easily displaced once set. 

So if how we feel is an incontrovertible fact, and how we perceive the world around us is based on our emotional reaction to it, it’s easy to see how cognitive biases are so hard to counteract. You’re asking for nothing less than someone to suspend their understanding of reality. As a rational human being, who would willingly do that? Asking someone to question their own reality is asking them to question life itself.

As bleeding-heart liberals, it’s easy to imagine ourselves as the empaths and the forces of evil as emotionally-detached cretins incapable of complex thought. 

Don’t wait for more, that’s the statement. Go back and read that sentence again. 

Photo by Ryan Walton on Unsplash

It’s easy to hold ourselves up as the heroes isn’t it? You’re waiting for the but, even though we should sit here for a minute and accept our own cognitive biases towards the members of the other tribe.

Yeah but, we want to scream, what about….? Yes, what about that? The truth is we can’t do anything to help anyone other than ourselves. In fact, forget about your own group and concentrate only on you for the time being. What can you do about the world? Not much. In fact, almost nothing.

Empathy is a particularly unique aspect of human existence. Dogs aren’t spending a lot of time wondering what we’re thinking about, because like human babies, they have no understanding of self. They assume that we’re actually thinking about whatever they’re thinking about. It’s why they assume we’re just as excited about going for a walk or dinnertime as they are. Who wouldn’t be, after all?

It’s painful for me to say this, and I really don’t want to, but the only real chance we have of changing another person’s mind is to love them. 

I know, I know. I’m disgusted myself. I hate saccharine, feel-good, Pollyanna bullshit. You went this far with me, even after I lured you with Elvis Costello lyrics and fed you talking dogs, only to give you a nursery rhyme in the guise of a Sunday school lesson. But wait, it gets worse.

Not only do we have to <gulp> love other people, we have to actually love them well. Listen, this is going to go a lot easier if you’ll stop gagging. Take a deep breath. Let’s press on.

There is nothing harder than loving another human being you disagree with. Love so much that you want to understand them, on a deep enough level that you’re willing to give up your own beliefs, in order to understand theirs. 

In fact, it’s so hard that few, if any, of us ever bother to go that far. It’s too damn hard.

It’s not without mortal danger either, as you risk giving up your very identity. What’s next, you ask, we’re all going to run around goose-stepping to country music (not an easy thing to do) and talking about the various merits of semi-automatic shotguns over handguns when it comes to home defense? Maybe we could spend some quality time worrying over Beyonce’s involvement in the Illuminati and wether the government is using chem trails to control us.

Now think about what you’re asking your white, 47-year old, Republican cousin Fred to do, when you ask him to put aside his long-held beliefs, and contemplate the particular challenges that a Black trans woman has when it comes to using a crowded restroom or shopping for undergarments at Walmart. He’s got a better shot at telling you what’s on the dog’s mind.

Look, I don’t always know what I’m going to write about when I sit down to work out my frustrations on the keyboard, and you’ll forgive me if I didn’t study the matter for months before asking you to read my random thoughts on the wisdom of labradors, fascists and your uncle Fred. But it’s going to be Thanksgiving before we know it, and we may be forced to have some uncomfortable conversations over pumpkin pie. We might as well be prepared for a few of them. Think of it as a practice run.

Not to mention that depending on what happens next Tuesday (and beyond), almost anything could happen, from the end of the world to the salvation of western democracy, so we might as well open our minds up to new possibilities beyond our current biased thinking.

If there is any karmic justice in the world, which is an existential question beyond my limited understanding of the meaning of life, we will have elected a new President by the time we sit down to say grace over turkey. There may even be an opportunity to listen to the hopes and fears of your despondent family members who view the threat of socialism as the embodiment of every horror ever conceived by man, coming for their guns and balls. It’s a scary time.

Maybe you could imagine what that might be like. The fear of it all.

Of course if Trump wins, it’s quite likely I’ll be publishing revised excerpts from the Anarchists Cookbook and organizing preemptive strikes against the fascist regime while planning for the inevitable moment they come to take me away.

But I’ve already imagined what that will be like, so I’m way ahead of them.

Give the trans girl a smile. Have some pie. Pet the dog. Give Fred a hug.


Follow David Todd McCarty on Twitter @davidtmccarty and The Standard @capemaystandard

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