The world would be better off if there was more empathy. People everywhere and always treat each other abominably. Many are the reasons for all the abuse, injustice, and killing: material gain, fanatical ideology, some twisted idea of duty, demented forms of pleasure, and so on. The victim is objectified, turned into a thing, a cipher; to be used and abused or just destroyed. What seems to be missing is awareness of what’s going on inside the person being abused or savaged.
What’s missing we call empathy, and people with a stark deficit in empathy we call psychopaths. So, to be human, we need more than rational skills. We need to have some sense of the inner side of other people. We need to cultivate our ability to enter—to feel and imagine—the soul of another human being. Empathy is our best counterpoint to psychopathy.
A grim realist might growl in response: Dream on! But in reality, each of us is wed to one body, one life; we’re all driven by forces we don’t comprehend. We rarely have time or inclination to pause and peer attentively into the souls of fellow travelers. Being receptive to the inner reality of others is getting harder and harder in our gadget-preoccupied world. The anxiety is much too acute and people are fixated exclusively on themselves. It’s useless calling for more empathy. I’m afraid that Hobbes was right: the human condition comes down to one thing: the war of all against all. The hard truth is that only the strong, the self-absorbed, and the ruthless survive in the struggle for existence.
But an idealist might still retort: It’s true that everything, as the Hindu sage says, is food for everything. Human existence may seem atomistic, egoistic, and fatalistic—but only if you omit the mental and spiritual dimension—a grave error, committed by Hobbes.
If we were just physical beings, empathy would be impossible. I don’t believe that my screw-driver, sitting next to my hammer, ever tried to imagine what it felt like being the nail slammed by the hammer.
But for us it is possible to imagine what the people we meet are thinking, feeling, and imagining. Unlike a statue or a photograph, a real, living person has an invisible inner side—just as we all do. Empathy with another human being is possible because we can connect mentally, just as we can touch each other physically.
But still the grim materialist insists we are separate, each isolated in a mortal body and trapped inside our private inner life. In short, by virtue of our physicality, we are numerically separate entities. Camaraderie must be short-lived, and all the higher bonds of love and loyalty are doomed to perish.
Let my idealist friend respond to this grim oracle. It does seem that being a human being is a lonely adventure. I am one mind that knows and feels life through one body, and I seem to be locked inside that one mind and body—but thanks to the reality of telepathy, I am not after all so locked in. Telepathy is the fly in the ointment of materialism. The evidence for telepathy is massive, and tells us that direct mind to mind interaction is a fact of nature. For telepathy to occur our minds must somehow be deeply connected and intertwined.
Our minds are connected because at bottom they are parts of one mind. The ancient Hindu mystics understood this as did the quantum physics founder, Irwin Schroedinger. Look within and notice that your mental occurrences are nowhere in physical space. You may point to your head but that is not the scene of your mental life. Our consciousness, our mental life, in fact, is demonstrably nonlocal.
This deep connection of our minds may not be obvious; if it were, we would probably all promptly go mad. Imagine being bombarded by all the thoughts, images and feelings buried in the minds of the people around you. We are not meant to know too much about each other so easily. But neither do we want to build a wall around our selves, and shut out our possible angels. Once we see that we are all connected via telepathy, empathy becomes not just possible but inevitable.
The potential is there. But time, place, and circumstance can either depress or enhance our empathy. Suppose we believe that certain kinds of people are inferior or objectionable, hateful or contemptible, our empathic potential for them gets depressed. But if we celebrate diversity and believe in our common humanity, our empathic potential may come into play.
In our technocratic culture, it’s easy to fall into habits and attitudes that reduce other people to quantifiable data. Their internal reality is neglected in the rush to exploit them as consumers or as pawns in political maneuverings. To fight this tendency, we should step back and look around.
There are resources that used to be central to higher education, the so-called ‘humanities’—mainly the arts. They offer to cultivate our empathic potential: painting, sculpture, music, poetry, dance, drama, storytelling of all kinds. All these use esthetic feeling, imagination, curiosity and the sense of beauty, to explore the neglected depths of the human soul.
That takes empathy, and should liberate in others their empathic potential. It takes empathy to appreciate great music and art, great poetry, drama, and dance. And empathy may be our best bulwark against human savagery. So this is an avenue of hope—real higher education. Whereas, the ethos of materialist consumerism--of capitalism, militarism, and scientism--is the arch enemy of empathy.
My sense is that, from historical wide angle, humankind has probably become more empathetic over the centuries. With a focus on American culture, you can probably see a trend toward greater empathy over the years, but with some peaks and valleys here and there. For example, the materialism that you mention in your post seems to be much more prominent in college kids today than in their counterparts of the previous two decades. If that is correct, one can only hope that it's just a bump in the road; a valley on its way to changing toward a more empathetic generation.
I had never made that connection between the humanities and empathy. (But now that you brought to my attention, it's obviously true). Thank you for this essay.
Post a Comment