I was watching the other day a documentary about a serial killer and how he tortured his victims. I hate such types of programs yet what interests me about them is how the criminals they talk about can ‘have the heart’ to hurt fellow human beings or even anything living at all. The documentary explained eventually that when the criminal’s brain was scanned, it was concluded that the special place for Empathy inside his brain had been damaged in an accident when he was a child, for which reason, he was feeling no pity nor repentance while committing those crimes.
This all drove me to wonder ‘WHAT are we without empathy?’, and the reason why I am choosing to use the word ‘what’ as opposed to ‘who’ is because the latter indicates that the individual is still considered a human being, which may entail that he or she may actually have feelings underneath the corrupted crust inside his or her brain.
So ‘what’ do we become without empathy?
In order to answer that, we should have a look at what Empathy means and entails.
Dr. Daniel Goleman in his world-famous book “Emotional Intelligence: Why EQ Matters More Than IQ” mentions an incident in Germany, whereby a bike driver had been hit by a car, and remained laying flat to the side of the road completely ignored. He said drivers in surrounding cars were looking at him without feelings/impressions on their faces awaiting their traffic lights to turn green. It may seem surprising to you or to most of us, but obviously it wasn’t surprising to those fellow drivers who didn’t even care to take that poor biker to the hospital.
Some may say that in this day and age, chivalry has almost disappeared from our glossary. There may not be time for it basically. Also, since time equals money to most of us, then actions that may delay us, can be easily assessed as futile. Some may say that life has become all about money. Others may acknowledge that and still see that there are those who are considered leaders socially who always make this extra step that no one else seems willing to do, without asking anything in return, and despite the fact that he or she may be late to their appointments as a result.
So it boils down to one’s ethics too. So for example, if a manager appreciates the concepts of family, he may not accept that his employees remain after working hours trying to make ends meet, because he may value and acknowledge that his employees actually deserve a rest, family time and right to have a life. Therefore, meanwhile he may push his employees’ performance and urge them to progress with more passion, he would still remind them that work is just part of their lives, and not a reason to forget about life.
However, when we say ethics, we may associate that with a higher brain functionality, one that is totally contradictory to the basic needs (instincts) of a primitive mind. Yet in fact, ethics can also be an organic product of one’s feelings and one’s own level of emotional intelligence. It is like having looking inward towards yourselves and emotions with the same lens, through which you look on other people’s feelings outside of you, thus, being able to establish an understanding or a connection between you and them. The more you learn to discern your emotions, the more expert you become in doing that, which in turn translates into better relationships and success in connecting with others. In other words, it is said that one who understands one’s own feelings is usually more effective in responding to other people’s feelings in return. This goes along the famous quote by Plato: “Know Thyself“.
So empathy basically is discerning your own emotions and learning to discern others’ the same way, to a degree that you put yourself in their place and imagine how it would be to be experiencing what they experience. Sounds too much, especially in this fast-paced age, but actually we see aspects of empathy wherever we go. As a matter of fact, it has been proven scientifically that we are wired for empathy. For example, if we watch someone down the street walking with a heavy stack of books or boxes, we automatically shrink our faces and imagine that we are the ones who are carrying that load.
Empathy is also proven to exit naturally in human from a very young age, like when a child sees another child that’s crying. It automatically starts crying too. If a child sees happy kids, he or she automatically starts mimicking that in return. Even most animals have different degrees of genuine empathy. We can see this in a mother animal caressing her children, or when we see two swans leaning their heads against one another forming a shape of a heart.
So how would a natural quality that allows humans, despite all of their differences (age, race, faith, gender, etc.) connect and unit with one another any time anywhere? How valuable is this unique quality to us? Are we willing to oppress it or improve it? Is it worth stopping to help out someone who seems in dire need of help?
On the other hand, what happens if we oppress our own feelings of empathy? Does this make us less human? What would a person become without empathy? I was thinking of all these questions,and realized that human fixation can be as deep as a black hole. The more one looks inwards, the more experiences one is exposed to. It also depends on the way you are looking. For example, there are those who look inwards with a loner’s attitude, reminiscing of a happy past or negatively dwelling on how unlucky one had always been. The result of such perspective conjures up even more sadness, loneliness, sense of isolation and negativity. Also, too much inward fixation can lead to a major shift of attention to the outside world and the healthy human need to socialize with other people and integrate with new potential happy encounters. When one is too focused on pitying oneself, the less empathy one is going to feel for others, thus the more distant one may become to surrounding happenings and people around one or in the world.
Empathy is said to bring people closer to one another by being able to identify with each other’s feelings and needs. It is also said to be the mother of compassion. Alfred Adler described it as “seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another, and feeling with the heart of another.”
On the other hand, individuals with an abusive or aggressive past may lack empathy too, as their past experiences may have turned them into beast-like humans: aggressive, selfish or a victim to one’s own primitive instincts that once they get fulfilled, one may repetitively yearn for more. Some scientist once said such individuals become more like vampires or human predators. Vampires don’t have empathy, and the more they drain a human of blood, the more blood they crave. However, both modes (the introvert and predator) can share one common tendency, which is to constantly seek sensual satisfaction through whichever way possible, and they can become not deterred by ethical or moral inhibitions that a healthy person shuns away from.
So all that brings us to the main question, which is the title of this article: What (not Who) Are We Without Empathy?
“A human being is a part of a whole, called by us “universe”, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest… a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” Albert Einstein
- Making actual progress – (Empathy, Part 2) (131313sketchbookproject.com)
- Social Intelligence and Leadership (lugenfamilyoffice.com)
- Couples In Conflict – EQ Education Helps If Counseling Doesn’t (junctionangermanagement.wordpress.com)
Many times following my coaching sessions with my coachees, the same question keeps going around in my head: Why do we tie up our own hands?
Regardless of the circumstances or the context of the coaching I would be working on with my coachees, a truth always stands out before my very eyes.
A one-sided humiliating relationship mistaken for a loving two-way relationship; a client who thinks just because she’s been away from the work market, she would not fit there again despite the fact that she’s been receiving non-stop job offers during her stay at home; another guy who thinks he is not as good as others, and therefore, cannot possibly compete with his rivals, and so on. The examples are diverse, but they highlight the same fact that I discern over and over again: We are tying up our own hands with a pair of non-existent cuffs. I use the word ‘exist’, because in most cases, they are intangible, and may not even exist in their day-to-day reality. They’re mostly driven by the fear of the unknown. I too am guilty of holding myself back every now and then, because of fear.
One of the blessings in life is that people come from different backgrounds, as this allows them to see other people’s experiences from a totally fresh point of view. If I had the same fears towards their problems as they did, I would not be able to motivate them in anyway. However, the mere fact that every person has a unique perspective towards what they hear and see, reinforces my sense of confidence in that I can help more people every time, which renews my sense of life purpose, and re-ignites my passion to help others.
Coaching is the best career step I have ever made in my life. It ties in together all my previous experiences, and allows me to align with my values and goals. It feels so great when you’re able to achieve a shift in perspective for your coachees. There’s nothing more worthy than to invest in human beings. I choose to do this, as opposed to investing in money as a life purpose. In return for work, I am gaining friendships, and in return of a fortune, I am gaining enough money to make me feel the achievement I am attaining every step of the way.
When I listen to these people’s stories, a voice in my head says: Regardless of the context, we limit their actions towards our goals, due to the strategies of fear that only we know their details, and we do that in prevention of a probable danger (criticism, bully, losses, etc.), mostly an unknown and a non-existent one in the external reality (as opposed to our internal sense of reality).
Byron Katie talks in one of her seminars about the culture of fear that parents and caregivers plant in children’s minds, thinking they are teaching these young souls to be more careful so they stay away from danger. Yet, they don’t teach them that getting hurt and falling down is part of life, and that danger is just as realistic as the floor they’re jumping on.
However, the difference between what parents teach their kids earlier in their lives, and what they (kids growing up into adults) suffer from eventually is that earlier in their lives, the source of instilling those fears was present and dominant, i.e. the parent/ caregiver was mostly standing around the child, and taking care of him/her.
Yet, it seems that as people grow older, they stop needing that teacher of fear to be physically present around them to remind them of those fears. Adults practice what they had learned as kids automatically. This is what I call “tying our own hands with non-existent cuffs”. Whether consciously or subconsciously, these fears are valid and existent (at least in the person’s mind), and because I may have a unique perspective on things, I can’t see these threats affecting me. Not feeling threatened by what threatens other people can help one feel grateful and more confident that I can help them. Simply by hearing a different insight, the listeners may achieve a major shift in their views to certain matters. They start to see how their fears are inside their heads and hearts, and they had been inflicting pain, stress and anxiety upon every part of their bodies. This applies to me. Helping others helps me realize my own fears and feelings, and that’s the beauty of investing in people.
When people create different understandings of pain, hurt, fear, pessimism, rage, anger, disappointment, etc, as the destinations they never wish to get to, in most cases, they end up dwelling there anyway.These people go on their lives carrying their loads of negative emotions toward things that had happened to them in their lives, or toward people who had caused them. However, the difference between this and adult fear is that when one is young, there’s somebody nagging him/her with such negative thoughts.
Despite the painful period of anxiety and stress, it can be undone, mainly by gaining more awareness around them and acting upon motivation. A heightened awareness can lift those invisible cuffs and worries off of our hands and minds. Coupled with a willingness to overcome those fears, it can have a major effect on our lives.
Byron Katie goes on to describe the sheer joy kids experience upon overcoming an adventure. Kids thrive upon delving into the unknown with a completely fresh mind and an energized soul, yearning for more life and adventure. If protecting ourselves from danger is the guarantee of happiness and success, then most cautious and long-living individuals must be the happiest people on earth.
Dr. Suzan Jeffers talks in her book, Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway, that a good way to combat a feeling of imprisonment or blockage due to some fears we have, we can say to ourselves: “I’ll handle it”. So, when feeling afraid of committing to a certain action, we can say to our brains: If this (failure, hurt, disappointment) happens, I’ll handle it. The brain takes on whatever we tell it. So if we consciously overcome our fears around some things, then our brains can translate that into action in many cases.
We are born with an innate passion for adventure and experimentation as the result is mostly fun. Yet, as we grow older and are required to act and think in certain socially acceptable frameworks, we may well allow our personal fears turn into cuffs that we accept as limitations to limit ourselves and our potential, in prevention of some unobservable danger.
Remember the image of these two kids jumping into the deep blue sea with total eagerness, energy and optimism. If these kids stop to think of the dangers, they would never experience the fun of such exciting dive. They may get hurt or they may not, but that wouldn’t stop them. That wouldn’t have stopped us when we were their age.
Think of what happened that made you change. Gauge if adventure is needed sometimes to gain some real success in your life. Prepare, plan and prevent danger, but don’t let it stop you from fulfilling your passion.
Free your hands from your invisible cuffs, and take a dive into the unknown. You can only expect more learning and more excitement.
- What Are You Afraid Of? (selling4aliving.com)
- Don’t let and fear get in the way of your dreams! (discoversuraiya.wordpress.com)
- How to build better confidence: 5 effective steps! (theselfloveblog.com)
- Self Sabotage!! (themodernhippy.wordpress.com)
- Fear (possibleself.wordpress.com)
- There’s Nothing to Fear, But…Aw Heck Aren’t We All Afraid Sometime?? (ltrs2mom.com)
- Achieving Success: Top 6 Steps in Overcoming The Fear of Success (achievesuccessacademy.wordpress.com)