Before I start, I want to tell you about a wonderful site on the web, and recommend a visit there: Check out http://www.compassionatecooks.com for info on a plant-based diet and man’s cruelty to animals. Also, wonderful nutrition info you simply cannot find in one place anywhere else is here, easily accessible especially if you go to the podcast and begin with #1.
President Obama has said that in his search for a Supreme Court nominee, he is going to be looking for something with empathy. I am going to give him the benefit of the doubt of assuming the shorthand to mean that he wants the nominee to have the capacity for empathy. But what did he mean, or by extension what do we ourselves understand by this word “empathy”? The German term, coined by the German philosopher Rudolf Lotze, or Theodore Lipps (sources conflict) in the mid-nineteenth century (einfühlung) or the literal English translation, “in-feeling” was originally a term of art appreciation. “Empathize” was coined in 1924 came closer to the meaning it has today.
In explaining his vote against Chief Justice John Roberts, Obama wrote:”[w]hat matters on the Supreme Court is those 5 percent of cases that are truly difficult…In those 5 percent of hard cases, the constitutional text will not be directly on point. The language of the statute will not be perfectly clear. Legal process alone will not lead you to a rule of decision…. in those difficult cases, the critical ingredient is supplied by what is in the judge’s heart.”
Definitions of Empathy abound and here are just a few. Wickipedia: “Empathy is the capability to share your feelings and understand another’s emotion and feelings. It is often characterized as the ability to “put oneself into another’s shoes,” or in some way experience what the other person is feeling. Empathy does not necessarily imply compassion, sympathy, or empathic concern because this capacity can be present in context of compassionate or cruel behavior.” (Italics mine)
Hannibal Lector in the Silence of the Lambs had empathy, a terribe empathy, and he used it to horrific advantage as he was able to intuit volumes about a victim, having gotten, as we say, into the person’s head. He also had no comscience, since he seems to have had no regrets, he perhaps even enjoyed having inflicted pain and horror upon the persons he murdered in such grotesque fashion. But he did so because he understood just how much pain he would be causing them…Note, later I thought about this and wondered if it is true that he actually could experience the semi-vicariousness of empathy and still be so willing to inflict torment on others. It seems to me that if he truly understood — in the sense of feeling for and with the person — how he or she suffered, he could not possibly cause such pain. Also, is not implicit in the notion of empathy some indication of compassion? Well, you see how difficult the subject turns out to be!
To continue with others’ definitions: Carl Rogers wrote: “To perceive the internal frame of reference of another with accuracy and with the emotional components and meanings which pertain thereto as if one were the person, but without ever losing the “as if” condition. Thus, it means to sense the hurt or the pleasure of another as he senses it and to perceive the causes thereof as he perceives them, but without ever losing the recognition that it is as if I were hurt or pleased and so forth.”
Khen Lampert (2005): “[Empathy] is what happens to us when we leave our own bodies…and find ourselves either momentarily or for a longer period of time in the mind of the other. We observe reality through her eyes, feel her emotions, share in her pain..”
There is something else that precedes empathy, which seems to be innate to the human species. Emotional contagion according to Wickipedia is “the tendency to catch and feel emotions that are similar to and influenced by those of others. One view developed by John Cacioppo of the underlying mechanism is that it represents a tendency to automatically mimic and synchronize facial expressions, vocalizations, postures, and movements with those of another person and, consequently, to converge emotionally.”
Sympathy or “feeling with” on the other hand, used to mean what empathy has now come to mean. “In Eng., almost a magical notion applied to it at first; e.g. in ref. to medicines that heal wounds when applied to a cloth stained with blood from the wound. Meaning “conformity of feelings” is from 1596; sense of “fellow feeling” is first attested 1662. Sympathize “to have fellow-feeling” is recorded from 1605. Sympathetic “sharing the feelings of another” is from 1718.”
Now, my concern is not actually Obama’s use of the word, though I frankly believe he simply meant “humanity, or humane spirit or humanism” or something like that. It is rather with my own ability to feel empathy that I am concerned. I know that many people get anxious when I tell them I fear I cannot feel empathy, because to them it marks me, or might if true, as somehow less than the warm, caring and compassionate human being they take me for. Now, how I feel being whatever it is, I firmly believe that what I wrote back in 1984 remains as true today as it ever was then, that love, and forgiveness and compassion are decisions of the will and acts that flow from them, rather than pure feeling-states. In fact, I venture to say that the feeling itself is less important, if important at all, than the act.
Take Mother Theresa for example. After early spiritual experiences, she apparently led a life almost entirely bereft of the feeling of God’s presence in her life, a state of bleak lack of further spiritual connection. She was close to despair more than once. Yet she came to be regarded as a saint for her acts of humble compassion and altruism and few ever knew how desperate she sometimes felt. So good was she seen to be, such an example of true Christian values, that she may soon be declared an official Saint of the Roman Catholic Church
There is absolutely no implied analogy here, nor any claim that my acts resemble those of Mother Theresa in any imaginable way. I mention her only as an extreme example of someone who was clearly an exemplar of compassionate goodness, but who nonetheless felt different on the inside from what people always assumed. This does not, and should not, detract from the value of her acts, nor their purity as acts of love and kindness and selflessness. No, in my book they only point them up the more, for being driven only by her will and her conscious decision to act on what she knew she had to do, rather than on the easy impetuosity of emotion. The decision she made to give her life to the poor and sick of Calcutta must have been hard; it is always easier to act when emotions run high. But that only makes the fact that she did, and continued to make that self-sacrificing act her life for decades afterwards, all the more breathtaking.
Now where was I? Mother Theresa seems to have felt empathy, though of course we cannot know this. All we know is that she acted compassionately and humbly and with extreme kindness always. We want to think she felt empathic, but have little evidence to prove it (or disprove it) in the end. I think this is why I brought her up. There is no comparison between us, of course, my problem being the evil I cause rather than the good she spread. However, I rely on a display of compassion to others, which is deceptive, as I am ashamed of my evil essence, do not in fact wish to pollute and contaminate as I do. I do not lie and tell people I am harmless, but I try to act like a good person, to be seen as empathic and sympathetic, always ready with an open ear and a willingness to listen at all hours of the day or night. I do good things, go out of my way for people, believe that it is the acts of love, of compassion that is important, because I must: I cannot feel either!
I do not know why this matters so much to me, but I believe it has a great deal less to do with empathy than with something far more selfish: I treat people as I know I want them to treat ME. I want to be listened to, I want to be assisted when I need help and so forth. So I do it for them, hoping someone else might also do so for me. Not in return, mind you. No, I know the world does not work that way. But perhaps, in some fashion, I might “earn it”? And if not, well, I did not deserve benign treatment anyway, being evil and malignant from the start…In short, I practice the golden rule, perhaps, but a very self-serving kind of one.
But the difference between this and empathy is huge. I ask a fundamental question that is in fact the reverse of the essential one asked in empathy: Not how would I feel if I were that person, if I were that person with such and such happening to me. But how would that person feel if she were I? It is a subtle point, a subtle distinction, but a crucial one. On the one hand a person shows a capacity for true empathy — how does that other person feel? — and on the other merely demonstrating that he can recognize a feeling state in another person because he has felt something similar in himself and he can imagine himself feeling that way again.
Many years ago, my father put together a book on the subject of empathy in which he, revealingly, made precisely this semantic error, defining empathy as “how would that person feel if he were I?” I tell you this only because I believe that my own lack of empathy stems from his, from his inability to teach me to feel what he himself cannot feel or understand. My mother was not particularly close to me growing up, because she felt that I somehow felt superior to her, which was far from the truth. Nevertheless she took into her head that notion and could not get it out (her worst accusation to me, when angry, was “You are just like your father..!”) with the result that I felt shut out a lot, forced not to feel or reveal any stray feelings that might still arise (Note: the bulk of my emotions had long since been squelched or shut off in my extreme effort not to be hurt or let anyone ever know they’d hurt me, or know anything else I felt, for that matter…) ** She did feel compassion and empathy, but nonetheless her effect on me in this respect was minimal, her effect on me was hurtful. (Not in every way, mind you. She was a good mother in general, though she failed me in some crucial aspects.)
** Note that relations with both parents are vastly improved at present, that I love both deeply. I write of the past truthfully, but without rancor or even regret.
In any event, the result was that I had neither mother nor father to teach me either in words or by example or in action what empathy was, and it was my misfortune to be too shy and perhaps too ill already to meet or interact closely with any other adult who could substitute for them. The result of that, I fear, is that I cannot actually feel empathy, and without empathy I cannot feel real love. But hell, I don’t even feel affection, not really. I never ever feel like reaching out and putting a hand on anyone, or hugging them spontaneously…If I have ever done it, it has been stiffly and without feelings of desiring to or without “getting any good feelings,” only feeling reluctant and even repelled.
Did I say I could not feel affection. I must correct myself: I feel deeply affectionate for my cat Eemie, and this despite all my earlier avowals that I wanted to get rid of her for fear that I might kill her…I dunno why I said that. I think, no, I know it was because she was not sleeping alongside me anymore and was, for some odd reason, ignoring me, just sleeping in her spot behind the bookcase and eating secretly and sleeping at night by herself, so that I felt abandoned, and all she ever did to announce her presence was to knock things off the table when I was asleep, and break them!
But since I got out of the hospital in February, things have changed. Eemie is back to sleeping next to me, on top of me, or in between my feet. She crawls onto my lap when I am typing or reading and tries to get me to stop everything and pet her. And she ankle-dances around me all the time, as if she cannot bear not to be near me. In short, I no longer feel abandoned by her…
Which leads me to this: What can I do about all the above? Well, I do not know exactly. Dr O never quite believed, or never believed at all, that I felt neither empathy or love. I am not sure why…But I believe she was wrong not to do so. I think I feel it is unsafe to feel empathy for other humans. In that understanding, I have been visiting CompassionateCooks.com and listening to the podcast Food For Thought that comes out of that site. It is wonderful and informative and everyone should listen to it, for the nutritional information alone, even if you continue to eat animal flesh and secretions. After spending literally all weekend gorging on the 20-45 minute podcast episodes, I have decided that the cruelty-free vegan lifestyle is something I must try, that I can learn to feel empathy for animals first, and if I can do that, I will surely be able to feel it for humans. Because once I can really appreciate that pigs screaming when their throats are cut for slaughter, feel the same pain and fear that I would, and feel it with the empathy that might make it so painful to people, then I can’t imagine I won’t appreciate the pain/joy/sorrow etc that other human individuals may feel under the specific situations facing each. Maybe then I might have the capacity to feel affection and even love. I am 56. Can I hope for this before I die?
2 thoughts on “Empathy and Lack of Empathy (edited)”
I’m sorry if I led people to believe that I was quoting from my father’s book, as he would be loathe to have anyone think what I wrote were actually his words. No, I did not have a copy on hand and was relying, poorly, on the general impression that memory lent me. The words were mine. Apparently, memory failed me.
You quite misquote your father. . I wrote (p7) “… ‘I and you’ becomes ‘I am you’ or at least ‘I might be you… empathy brings with it feeling..’ “