In a recent comment on a controversial topic I explained my feelings to the article author in what I thought was a pretty clear and, if I do say so myself, compelling way. At the end of my comment I posed a few questions, one of which was…
(paraphrase) Do you, who feels so differently than I, have any empathy for people like me?
That author of the article acknowledged the clarity of my comment and question, and then said this as part of his answer…
(paraphrase) No, I don't. Sympathy, yes. But empathy implies an ability to feel as you do, and I don't understand anybody who actually feels the way you do.
This got me thinking about empathy. I often make a conscious effort to empathize, especially with people who have very different ideas than I have. I considered why I do that and what sometimes makes empathy difficult for me. Here’s what came to mind…
My interest in empathizing with others arose from childhood experiences. As is common with children, I witnessed and was the target of ostracizing behavior from my peers. To be perfectly honest, I probably dished out some of that bad behavior myself, but as the recipient of those ostracizing experiences I very quickly started wishing that others could know how their actions impacted me… and that subsequently curbed my bad behavior. I was wishing for empathy from others… not “sympathy”… empathy. Although I can’t say that I understood this as well at the time as I do now, I’m sure I was subconsciously hoping that empathy would change the behavior of others as it had changed my behavior. Eventually, I identified this hope as the ethic expressed in The Golden Rule.
Over time The Golden Rule has become a stronger and stronger part of my personal ethics, and I try to apply it to much more than just other people. For me, it was pretty easy to extend The Golden Rule to other animals, especially mammals. I consider…
- How might I feel about my circumstances if I was that animal?
- What would I think of the humans I encountered?
- What would my hopes be for how humans would interact with me?
Eventually, I started considering the impact of my actions on the environment… plants, and even non-living things. As a kid, living in the Mojave Desert, I used scramble up on various peaks to roll boulders down the mountain... Now, I try to put myself in the place of the rock who might say to me, "Dear Sir, please do not cast me down the mountain. It has taken so many millennia for me to attain this high place, and I would very much like to stay here a while." Of course there is nothing in our experience that tells us rocks would have any “hopes”, but we can still consider the merits of our actions as though rocks and other inanimate objects have the same sort of feelings we have.
I cannot tell the unempathetic guy that I have any notion of how a rock might “really feel”… in fact rocks probably don’t “feel” or “hope for” anything… still, I try to imagine it… and then use that to consider the merits of my actions. Is there something inherently bad about using such an approach? I don’t think so… I feel like doing this gives me a greater appreciation and respect for everything. So whether or not this unempathetic guy has the capacity to “understand” someone like me, I think it is more accurate to say… he is unwilling to try.
Disdain for empathy is spreading through our society. Our ideas and desires are hardening... many of us have become “unwilling to try”… unwilling to try understanding those who are different.
This article was inspired in part by the article, “What if We All Believed in the Message of Jesus?” by PatriotTom. More inspiration came from a discussion I had with a fellow Viner in another article. Out of respect for the possibility the author of the second article might want to remain anonyms, I am choosing to leave it to the author of the second article to identify himself and his article.