EMPATHY: SELLING YOUR SOUL FOR SOMEONE ELSE?
Sometimes I wonder if people ever get a little tired of me using the word “empathy.” Certainly if they did I would try my best to empathize with that reaction.
For obvious reasons I’ve spent a lot more time thinking about this word and everything it entails these past five years. In one sense it’s a Satanic value, but it’s also a tool, one that’s almost never not of help while dealing with people.
What I’ve learned lately though–and by lately I mean the past five or six days in particular–is that empathizing can take a lot from you as well. You could call it a kind of Satanic sacrifice.
Or maybe it’s the ultimate reality of the old myth of the deal with the devil: Power can be yours, but it can cost you, for lack of a better phrase, a little bit of your soul.
Developmental psychologist Ronit Roth-Hanania studied infant psychology at the Academic College of Tel Aviv-Yaffo and found that children show evidence of empathic behavior almost as soon as they become actively conscious of other people at all.
“Modest levels of other-oriented empathy were already evident at eight and ten months,” Roth-Hannia wrote in a 2011 paper, and although “prosocial behavior was rare in the first year,” early empathic responses appeared to be a reliable indicator of how kids would exhibit other-centric behavior at around two years old.
By way of a layperson’s opinion this doesn’t sound at all surprising, since it’s natural to be sociable, cooperative, and invested in people. And that’s coming from a guy who becomes hostile if the pizza delivery insists on knocking rather than just leaving it by the door like I asked.
But even I can’t help it. When I say “it’s natural” I mean that as literally as possible, that’s how primates survived in the wild. (Something that “survival of the fittest” fetishists like to gloss over, I notice.) Not to say that you can’t ever turn it off–but when you do I think it’s usually called depression.
Certainly I would call empathy a Satanic impulse–or at least some of my favorite Satans say so. In George Bernard Shaw’s Don Juan In Hell, Lucifer opines, “The world’s sympathies are all with misery, with poverty, with starvation of the body and of the heart. I call on it to sympathize with joy, with love, with happiness, with beauty.”
Poet William Blake’s Proverbs Of Hell teach, “The most sublime act is to set another before you.”
And the tragically affected French poet Charles Baudelaire called Satan “you who teach through love the taste for Heaven to the cursed pariah, even to the leper.”
Even freaky Anti-Satanists are in on it, with professor and professing preacher Joe Rigney haranguing that “empathy is a sin” because it “shifts the focus from the sufferer’s good to the sufferer’s feelings.”
Which is sort of like saying a fork is bad because you can’t eat it. Rigney ignores the fact that, simply put, I don’t always want good things for the people I empathize with. I can empathize with my enemies. In fact I’d better, if I want to make sure they really are my enemies.
I guess really sincere empathy does make me more likely to also feel compassion for a subject. But only if they deserve it–the little shits. Like I’m always saying, feelings are complicated.
All of that said, I find myself unexpectedly detached lately. Observing the news cycle of the past week, I’ve felt…drained.
I THINK the same things I always have: that society won’t confront built-in prejudices in meaningful ways unless forced to many times, that politics without direct action are sterile, that human wellbeing is more important than institutional security (although for the record I also believe that choosing between them is a false dilemma), and that black lives matter.
But I haven’t felt motivated. I’ve been afraid at times, but that’s a low bar, I’m liable to panic when the FBI warning comes up at the beginning of a DVD.
I don’t feel good about that sense of detachment. It’s possible this is a manifestation of privilege; after all, statistically speaking the cops aren’t going to haul off and kill me to fill a hypothetical monthly quota. Other people do not have the option of feeling passive.
But I also try to excuse myself by deferring to circumstances; with everything that’s happened just in the past five months, I wonder if I just don’t have any more in me right now.
This, I can potentially console myself, is also natural. “Empathy can be harmful to the empathizer,” the ironically unflappable YouTubing psychologist Todd Grande explained to his audience. “It can lead to exhaustion or a loss of sense of self,” noting that it’s a potential job hazard for counsellors in particular.
In myth and popular entertainment, the devil often tricks people into bargaining for things that ultimately harm them. I suspect that in reality deception wouldn’t be necessary, as almost everything that’s useful or desirable comes preloaded with a potential problem anyway.
Ultimately, I cannot control how I feel. But I still choose what I do. If someone asks for help, support, recognition, or material benefit, even if my empathy is flagging I can actively decide to do it anyway.
Mainstream religions sometimes preach that a thought and an act are interchangeable, morally speaking. You can probably guess I consider that a very sneaky doctrine, since it erases the material effects of your decisions.
Maybe if I commit to act I will start to feel like my old self again before long. But even if I don’t, I am entirely certain that those actions will yield results either way.