Empathy and Compassion

I ran across a fascinating video presentation by Sam Richards on TED the other day:


One thing the subsequent conversation on TED made clear was that “empathy” — as Sam uses the term — is not the same as either sympathy or agreement. It is “getting into the shoes” of the other person, trying to understand or feel what it must be like to be them. It is something that FBI profilers can do with psychopathic killers, to predict their next move — they certainly don’t sympathize or agree with the killer, but they do get into their shoes.

I didn’t personally find his experiment in empathy difficult. After all, the ambiguous image of the terrorist-slash-patriot has been around for generations in the icon of the “vigilante.” Batman comes immediately to mind, virtually all Clint Eastwood characters, Robin Hood, and many of the great heros of mythology. The vigilante is someone who breaks the law (or sacred custom) to pursue justice. In most cases, his cause involves destroying property, destroying innumerable faceless, brainwashed minions (some armed, many just operating the machinery of death), and ultimately the mano a mano battle to the death between the righteous vigilante and the evil mastermind.

All we need to do to empathize with any “terrorist” is to find (or make up out of whole cloth) the institutional injustice he is battling and convert him into a vigilante. The only real glitch is when we realize that we ourselves are among the faceless, brainwashed minions operating the machinery of death. Oops.

“Not me,” we say. “I recycle. I’m one of the good guys.”

Yes, that usually gets overlooked in the vigilante script. Next time you watch an action-adventure blockbuster in the multiplex, pay attention to the guy in the background who came to work that morning, poured his morning coffee with a little hazelnut creamer, checked all the blinking lights he’s supposed to check, and then got blown up along with the rest of the evil mastermind’s island.

Empathizing with terrorists isn’t a very big challenge to me.

Empathizing with people I don’t respect is much harder.

Mistakes, I understand. I’ve made them. Everyone I know has made them. It isn’t really that hard to empathize even with really big mistakes: an alcoholic surgeon, for instance, who kills a patient because he went to work drunk. If it ends there — well, it’s a terrible tragedy and demands an accounting, but I can understand how a slow decline can creep up on a person. I watched that kind of decline with my father in the year or two before he turned ninety-one and we had to take away his car keys. I said alcoholic in my surgeon example, but it could just as easily be senility (as with my father), or mental illness, a brain tumor, heart disease, or any number of other things that take the surgeon across the line from competence into incompetence so slowly that he doesn’t recognize how far it’s gone.

But consider now the alcoholic surgeon who kills a patient and covers it up, with the help of the hospital administration. Then does it again. And again. And again. Until the body count is so high that someone outside the system notices and blows the whistle. Then after the inquest, after the surgeon has his license stripped and goes to prison, he continues to protest he has done nothing wrong.

This, I find difficult. I cannot get into his shoes.

Unfortunately, this is much more common than terrorism. How many Catholic priests have molested altar boys with the implicit consent of their superiors? How many Fundamentalist preachers who rail against sins of the flesh from the pulpit are serial philanderers sheltered by the members of their congregation? How much dirty corporate laundry — nasty stuff that affects the life and health of hundreds of millions of people — is covered up repeatedly by highly-paid attorneys? How many bad cops are sheltered by the blue wall of silence? How many chronically abusive husbands are protected by the law and by their abused wives?

These are the extreme cases, and most people don’t knowingly encounter more than one or two such experiences in a lifetime. Though it is still far, far more likely than being involved with any terrorist activity.

But then we move down the chain to the viciously racist father-in-law, or the homophobic brother who can’t get through dinner without making offensive gay-bashing jokes, or the glassy-eyed evangelist cousin who can’t stop reminding you that she’s “praying for you because you’re going to Hell,” or the Facebook friend who proudly voted for George W. Bush — twice! — and still insists that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, and that his birth certificate is a fake.

Most of us have had these lesser experiences. Maybe it’s merely a character flaw in me, but I have the same problem empathizing with these people that I do empathizing with the alcoholic serial-killer surgeon. I don’t understand them — the closest I can come is to dismiss them through “pop psychologizing,” where I write off their bizarre ideation as some childhood trauma or chemical imbalance in their brain. But the psychologizing is merely wrapping the dismissal in a glib story. The truth remains that I dismiss them because I don’t understand them. I don’t empathize.

I am also increasingly less inclined to try.

I’ve spent an obscene amount of time lately trying to get into the mindset of the Tea Party “philosophy” and the people who espouse it. The basic premise — that government has grown out of control and needs to be scaled back — is something I understand and actually agree with. Very few people I know disagree with it, whether on the political left, the right, or somewhere in the middle. But then Tea Party rhetoric spins off into skewed disconnect with reality, and I find myself baffled.

I’ve found the same issue with Fundamentalist Christianity, another subject on which I’ve spent an obscene amount of time and study. I think I understand the basic religious impulse of the Fundamentalist, the desire to be in accord with something bigger than themselves. It’s something I feel, too. But then it spins off into a disconnect with reality, and I’m once again baffled.

I have no issue with reality-disconnects, as such. I enjoy flights of fancy as much as, if not more than, the next person. I read science fiction and fantasy, and love fantastical movies. I play immersion-style video games. I’ve played and facilitated Dungeons and Dragons games. I engage in “what-if” speculation about magic, crop circles, extraterrestrials, international conspiracies, alternative science and history, and more.

But at the end of the day, you have to give up your heroic deeds as Corwin the Black and wash the dishes. And no, you cannot pull out your BFG9000 and blow away the jerk who cut you off in traffic while drinking coffee with one hand, holding a cell phone with the other, and steering with his elbow. And no, the Rapture is not going to occur before 2:00 Friday afternoon when you have to present that paper you haven’t yet researched. No matter how hard you pray for it.

I’m tired of trying to empathize with people who talk nonsense. And I can’t respect their nonsense.

What I find a bit easier than empathy is compassion.

Compassion is the attempt to connect with the human core of the person inside the shell of crap that we each present to the world.

I can’t find empathy with someone like Sharron Angle (the 2010 Arizona Tea Party wannabe congresscritter). Why anyone would willingly swallow the bilge she has apparently swallowed, much less take it into the political arena (of all places!) and spew it back out in front of everyone, is entirely beyond me.

What I can do is to try to look past the bilge and see her as a human being. She strikes me as a crazy person. I have known crazy people — people with diagnosed and debilitating mental issues. Trying to get inside their shoes to understand them is not someplace I even want to go. Nor would I in any way support their fantasies of running a department or a company or a country.

But I can look past the mental illness to the person underneath, and see the common core of humanity that I share with them.

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