Defined by Wikipedia, referenced from the Oxford Dictionary –
- Empathy is the capacity to understand what another person is experiencing from within the other person’s frame of reference, i.e, the capacity to place oneself in another’s shoes.
It leaves men clutching for their crown jewels when they see another take a sharp knee to the gonads. It leaves women 50 shades more flustered, and raises lumps in sunday throats when someone knocks a Whitney Houston classic out of the park on X factor. But why?
I have had an extraordinary opportunity to see the full-scale of human empathy. Having been embroiled in grief since about the age of 22 until now, 27, I have had a pretty candid look at empathy from all angles.
It is surely among the most fascinating of the human emotions. It can seemingly swing wildly from person to person and yet it holds together communities, ideologies and nations far out reaching anything of the likes this world has ever seen.
From my personal experience, some people are so full of empathy, that it almost cascades out of them, gushing from their every action and observation, it seems to almost consume them when it takes hold. Encountering these people during spells of grief is both heart warming, and problematic. As soon as you come into contact you can see it in their eyes, the instant recognition of a shared feeling. An unspoken realisation that your depth of suffering is mutually understood. Immediately you are lifted from the isolation of your sadness. It is one of the most stunning gifts that we have, a level of communication beyond speech. I can tell you first hand empathy is a wonderful tool for survival. However the flip side of the coin is that you now recognise in that person they are walking the footsteps of your grief as well as their own.
I feel that most people I meet have this innate empathy in them, in some it drives them, in others it is a strong current in the background. But in some, empathy seems to be absent. For some, in my experience, it can seem that compassion and empathy is more an act of protocol, going through the paces, learnt through social encounters and observed behaviours. When on the receiving end it can feel a cold, gestural display, rather than an instinctive urge. I believe that both sets of characters have the same intentions, they may even be just as kind of heart, but they have a smaller or non-existent resource of empathy to draw on. I am passing no judgement on either end of the spectrum, merely observing it.
This has often left me thinking. Why?
Why do some people have droves of empathy and others have almost no purchase on it?
Why do some people torment themselves with thoughts of others while others are left unencumbered?
I am sure on one thing, and that is the majority seems to be on the empathetic side, certainly in my own personal dealings. However when you open the lens up to a wider look at our society is empathy further watered down?
My first thought was, the depth of empathy must come from personal experience i.e if you have a deep understanding of an emotion, you can more readily recognise it in others, and therefore recreate it within yourself. Seems to add up; I have had a deep feeling of pain, so I can draw on that experience and imagine it in others. The problem is that when I look back to my childhood, a childhood which was nigh-on-perfect. I clearly remember being almost over-run with empathy. I would sit and feel anguish about seeing someone bullied, imagining how it must have felt, or if I was involved in it, would haunt me for days. Looking back even further, seeing my sister in pain was worse than being in that pain myself. This shines doubt on the experience idea. Because leaps of imagination way outside of experience can be used to create an empathetic response.
Another observation of empathy is how reliant it can be on familiarity. If, or should I say when, there is an international travesty, the further the familiarity, the weaker the empathetic response. If we hear there has been 20 Syrians murdered, would we respond in the same way as we would if we heard 10 Londoners were badly injured in an explosion? Which would evoke more of an empathetic response? Even if the Syrians and the Londoners were all complete strangers. I know my first instinct would be to feel for the Londoners. Because it is easier for me to imagine being in that situation or being effected by it.
This does not make us bad or evil, we are at the mercy of our empathy and the mechanism that engages it. Another example, if you hear of a plane going down, do your ears prick up when you hear – two British people were on board, does that raise the emotion in you higher than when it was just 324 passengers?
This is one of the biggest problems in my opinion with attitudes towards the developing world, it’s simply lack of familiarity. If amongst those 20 Syrians, there was a much-loved UK TV talk show host, the winner of X factor and a Chelsea centre forward, they were all Syrian, would we feel differently? The familiarity allows us to feel empathy.
If we had a more inclusive approach by the media and we drew struggling nations into our narratives positively and increased the familiarity. Would we find it so easy to let them drown in the Mediterranean? Would there be as many radicalised groups of isolated and angry individuals causing terror?
Can we forgo the need for familiarity and instead look for it within ourselves with the understanding that although their may be superficial differences. We are pretty much the same.
It appears to me that on mass, humans are very much alike. The list of things that back up that idea, Popular TV shows, social media trends, icons, sports the list goes on, show us that we have a huge commonalty in the way we think and act.
I believe you could be put in a room one on one with anybody and find mutual ground. Whether that ground be a shared belief in the construction of the universe or a shared appreciation of a Snickers. It’s that commonality that has enabled us to create communities that first established our survival and now establishes our control of the planet. Empathy allows for shared experiences that tighten social bonds.
In-fact empathy is so crucial to us that without it you could be diagnosed as a psychopath or a sociopath, depending on the rhetoric of the time. Here is Wikipedia’s definition;
Psychopathy (/saɪˈkɒpəθi/; also known as—though sometimes distinguished from—sociopathy (/ˈsoʊsiəˌpæθi/)) is traditionally defined as a personality disorder characterized by enduring antisocial behavior, diminished empathyand remorse, and disinhibited or bold behavior. It may also be defined as acontinuous aspect of personality, representing scores on different personality dimensions found throughout the population in varying combinations. The definition of psychopathy has varied significantly throughout the history of the concept; different definitions continue to be used that are only partly overlapping and sometimes appear contradictory.
Are those without empathy celebrated? Better equipped for financial success?
In Jon Ronson’s book – The psychopath test. A detailed account is given of how psychopathic traits are not only indicators for financial success but almost imperative. Empathy seemingly a hinderance.
We all know that person that we have come away from thinking, “blimey he was a bloody psychopath” chances are, he probably was.
Empathy is at the core of our social evolution. We owe it a lot. But yet is it the emotion that gets scintillated in us by our modern culture? Or is our empathy being hijacked as a vessel to make us feel greed, fear and lack of satisfaction?
Our empathy allows us to imagine what it would be like to drive the Ferrari or win an Oscar, or put on aftershave that will end up with a Victoria secret model in your lap. The gap between how we imagine life would be with those things and how are life is without them, creates want, which in-turn creates dis-satisfaction with our current circumstances, if this “want gap” is constantly being created, it makes it very difficult for us to feel contentment. These ideals of success become the repetitive message that we see everywhere, so of course that will be the central feature of our shared ideas of success and progress. Success and progress are two things any organisms gravitate towards. That’s the nature of nature.
So if progress and success come in the form individual gain and a depressed empathetic response. Then that is the direction we as society will naturally head.
If the over-riding messages were to celebrate and deify individuals and causes that progress unity and humanitarian concerns. Celebrate empathy and compassion, not just in token story’s and films. But in actuality. How would that shape our society differently?
As an example, Which of these two individual would you say you know more about?
- Kailash Satyarthi
- Matthew McConaughey
The first is the winner of the Nobel peace prize 2014, the second the winner of best actor at the Oscars 2014. The list of achievements made by Kailash is nothing short of extraordinary. Jaw dropping acts of bravery and courage. Rescuing hundreds of children that had been taken into trafficking and rebel armies. Risking his life in the name of humanity almost on a weekly basis. Saving countless children from slavery. The second, has proved to be a quite brilliant actor, casting off the typecast as a shirtless hick to provide a compelling portrayal of an aids victim.
Which of these two gentlemen do you think received more media coverage for their acts? Whom do you think is more wealthy? Which one of them can you picture in your mind’s eye?
Shifts in shared myths and narratives are a more regular feature in our development then you may think. Civilisation as it stands today, in terms of time it’s been established is merely a drop of water in a sea of time that we have been knocking around as a species. From our behaviours being governed by the “spirit world” in Animism. To us mainly abiding to the teachings of religious texture. Shared narratives of a nation allowed even further co-operation of organised individuals and to the modern-day where we are in an increasingly secular world, governed by the laws of capitalism and commerce.
When you think of it like that you can see how these ideas are all fundamentally the same. They act as a guideline for what we believe to be a successful route for ourselves and our species. Sustaining and progressing ourselves is always the central theme.
It’s a shared consciousness, myths, story’s and practices recognised by people who are not necessarily personally connected.
Empathy connects them,
A feature that enables as to act on mass. An Astounding evolutionary tool. That has given us total dominance.
However the virulence of our success appears to be coming at a price. We have basically completely domesticated nature. That’s a simple fact. We all know the climate situation. We know that we are in a society that pushes individual success as paramount to egalitarian ideas. But I am of the opinion that we have got to this place with the best intentions. Again, with a shared belief that this is the direction for human progress. And in loads of respects we were right. Huge advances in healthcare, technology, communication etc. It has served us well in many areas. As did its predecessors, advancements were made by animist hunter gatherers that laid a path for religious conglomeration, conquering empires and patriot States. But we eventually shed these ideas as education and knowledge is gathered and agendas integrated.
So this leaves us with an opportunity to decide on the next central idea to our shared success as a species.
And if we want it to be a beneficial to the future of the planet and the most, rather than the few. We would have to start rewarding these values. As a species we are inherently selfish. We have to be its key to survival of the gene. So individually we can’t really be held responsible. But collectively we can. There is no problem with being selfish if your selfishness improves life for everyone. But we will have to change the goal posts for success. Could we create an ideology that serves to reward humanitarian behaviours? Who knows.
So should we bother with empathy?
The short answer is, I don’t believe we have a choice. I think empathy on some level will always be in us. It is part of the fabric of humanity. We can try to ignore it, but it will always be there in the most. What we can decide, is how we allow our empathy to guide us. Do we allow it to evoke feelings of want and dis-satisfaction, or can we use it as a tool for compassion. Can we take an extra few seconds to consider our reactions to news items, advertisements and personal relationships an take back control of our empathetic responses, rather then allowing it to be suppressed, or manipulated toward commercial means.
It feels like a lot of this article may be stating the obvious, but then I don’t think the obvious is being stated enough.