“Why empathy?”

Silence.

“Why compassion?”

Silence.

“Why should we care about each other?”

No one answered.

It wasn’t that we didn’t want to answer, we simply struggled to find the best reasoning for it. Perhaps we had never asked ourselves these existential questions before. Perhaps we couldn’t find an answer that wasn’t trite, naïve, or saturated with religious zeal. Perhaps there was actually no acceptable logical explanation at all. At any case, we couldn’t even figure it out for ourselves in our own terms, not in that instant.

Professor B. grew increasingly frustrated with the college Postmodern Criticism class. He paced the room as he poised these questions to us, a rising urgency in his manner, then he came to a stop beside a male student seated in the front. Abruptly, he put his hands around the young man’s neck. He tightened his grip and throttled him slightly. All eyes in the room widened and there were a few gasps, but we were more surprised than frightened. It was clear by the student’s nervous chuckling that B. was only pretending to choke him. The young man was large and muscular, more than double his size, he could easily knock the old man out if he wanted to, but the professor remained fearless and intent.

“Why should I stop hurting this man?!” B. demanded.

“We shouldn’t have to depend on each other,” a young woman answered brusquely, “The point is to empower people so that we don’t have to rely on each other.” Her words seemed cold and brutal. As harsh as that tenet of evolution “survival of the fittest” applied to human society: Proliferation for the strong, extinction for the weak.

“Religion,” another student answered, “Do unto others.” His voice wavered slightly, as if he hardly believed it himself, he didn’t bother to complete the phrase. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The golden rule, preached by nearly every major religion and every wise leader since time immemorial. A universal rule universally disregarded.

“That’s all we have?!” B. said exasperatedly. He released the student’s neck and gave him a pat on the back.

He could choke you back, I thought.alightcirclependulum1mpbaeckerHe could choke you back. Perhaps not now, perhaps you are stronger than him now, but one day you will get sick, like everyone else, you will eventually become weak. Then he will take advantage of you as you did him. You will be at his mercy.

But I didn’t have the nerve to say it out loud. It struck me as a frustratingly self-serving logic. The idea of bolstering egocentric motivations instead of knocking them down seems essentially corrupt. We don’t love someone only because they love us. We don’t do the “right” thing because we are afraid of being punished otherwise; we say we made the right choice on our own. And no real heroes want to be applauded for the great things they do for themselves. Sacrifice would be insignificant if it didn’t involve an enormous amount of selflessness.

Professor B.’s question remained with me long after the class. Even now, many years later, I keep circling back to it. Why should we care about each other? It disturbs me now, even more than it did then, that most of us did not have an answer for him. And it seems we are not any closer to having an answer now amidst our current global challenges: the growing migrant crisis, the troubling rise of extremist, fascist, and populist groups, the far-reaching impact of economic and environmental catastrophes. The multitudes of problems we have understanding one another and crossing vast divides from the racial, cultural and sexual to the financial, religious and political.

alightcirclependulum3mpbaecker

Perhaps we would not have such persistent problems if we were more preoccupied with being empathetic and compassionate than with being wealthy, powerful or famous. Just mentioning the words empathy and compassion now can incite a barrage of hateful commentary against “political correctness” and “snowflake liberalism”. The current political rhetoric has effectively turned these terms into zero sum games: Either you love your country or you don’t. If you care about refugees and illegal immigrants then you must not care about your own people. Rigidly nationalistic stances make empathy and compassion seem like dangerous weaknesses and a subservience to needy “barbarian” hordes at the cost of one’s own nation and laws. While more liberal arguments tend to make empathy and compassion seem like exclusive characteristics the other side does not possess.

Admittedly, I have grown to dislike certain connotations of the terms: That the poor or disadvantaged want or need pity. Or when the self-righteous exploit their own “tremendous” capacity for empathy and compassion for their own aggrandizement (this concerns all political persuasions). This is glaringly apparent when they are quick to heap praise on their idols, berate anyone who opposes them, and diminish people who do not share their backgrounds.

If empathy and compassion have become passé in these highly divisive times. If harshness is the reactionary swing of the pendulum to the supposed “propaganda” of pc culture, then severity in balance can still bring us to a fair understanding of each other. But who is willing to observe themselves with the same harsh lens they use to scrutinize the “others”?

alightcirclependulum4xmpbaecker

If they did they would find that they actually have many things in common with the people they hate or exclude. There is not a single person among us who is perfect. We all have weaknesses. We are all dependent on others in some way. No one exists in a vacuum. No one is truly independent. We can choose to see the best in people or the worst, either way we would have plenty of examples, but a leader who chooses to see the best in everyone would not bring out the worst in some.

From the most rational perspective, B.’s dramatic example of choking the student was not just an injury to the young man, a blatant disregard for another person’s life, rights and emotional well-being, it was just that, an example for the rest of us. It stipulated a new rule: B. could do whatever he wanted to whomever he wanted without retribution.

What if we applied this rule to ourselves? We could copy his example, in which case, inevitably (as it always does) crime and chaos would ensue. Then perhaps B. would panic and try to reign us in by amending the rule he created (purposely or unwittingly): “He and a select few were exempt from the consequences.” We could either support his actions on account of his being “special or superior” (whatever that means) or see the whole thing as the unfair power dynamic that it is.

alightcirclependulum2mpbaecker

“Why should we care about each other?”

Are we not, each and every one of us, alive for the very fact that someone cared for us when we were completely helpless? Someone took care of us when we were at our most vulnerable as infants. If we were lucky it was someone who loved us “unconditionally”. And we will, each and every one of us, inevitably return to that vulnerability again in sickness or old age. All of us should make every effort at an answer even if the logic might be weak, after all, empathy and compassion are associated with the heart not with the intellect.

Amidst our bitter turmoil and intractable divisions, it often feels like the universe is gripping us by the neck and tightening its grip. There is no way of knowing if it is benevolent or indifferent, if it is trying to teach us a valuable lesson or allowing us to act out every vile thing we can conceive of. It seems there is nothing to stop us but ourselves. But we don’t know how resilient the earth can continue to be, if it can survive our constant missteps and repetitions of history, we may be running out of time. What’s your answer?

alightcirclependulum9mpbaecker

Text and images by M.P. Baecker.

17 thoughts on “The Pendulum of Empathy

  1. Not reading any previous comments (especially Tom’s) so I can feel original.

    I think the whole cooperation thing is ultimately selfish, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Why should we stop Professor B from strangling Bob? Hell, wouldn’t you want the same if you were in Bob’s shoes? As you point out, why raise babies when they can’t help themselves? Wouldn’t you want the same treatment? Why stop a criminal from getting away with murder? Wouldn’t you want your loved ones protected?

    On the whole, lone wolves don’t tend to do that well and they have to specialize in everything. Citizens, on the other hand, get the benefits of society, organization, specialization, protection, etc. (including mass hysteria and mob logic… not exactly a benefit).

    I think there IS something else to this, however, that has to do with us being naturally compassionate. I don’t think it’s exactly about mutual benefit. In my heart of hearts, I don’t want to think that my undying love for my wife exists simply because I want someone to keep my corpse away from the crows.

    From an evolutionary standpoint, I guess it just might be that. I’m not that pessimistic yet, so I’m going to end with generic quote about love and humanity.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I loved reading your comment! Brilliant! As I told Tom, I think I should always crowdsource big ideas from now on!!😄

      You make an excellent point! What so bad about being “selfish”?! Caring is beneficial for the self as well! From an evolutionary perspective, it makes total sense that we cooperate for both the group’s benefit and for our own benefit! It’s a huge waste of time and energy to have to generate everything from scratch alone! I think it gets twisted when self or the group (for that matter) becomes the only motivation to be compassionate, these two motivations should not wipe each other out but coexist. In this regard, your reasoning and Tom’s reasoning actually compliment each other really beautifully (and you didn’t even read his comment beforehand!😄): Why should we care about each other? Because it’s both selfish and better for the group, therefore it’s better for everyone! Voila!

      This is a big part of Love as well, but love is even more wondrous and beautiful because it never seems to be satisfied with clear incentives or an even give and take, it always strives to be something more, something purer, indescribable and limitless. Maybe that’s why we can’t enough of love as a feeling and as a subject! At any case, I sure like to think my love for my hubby is much more than him keeping me from the crows!😂

      If Bob were to choke Professor B in return, a big part of me would be rather pleased with that, I do love a good revenge story, (Game of Thrones does that really well). But it’s also really, really exhausting to have constantly fight each other all the friggin’ time! It would be impossible for humans as a species thriving (or living) for very long without compassion, especially with the weapons we have now.

      Like

  2. Because it is better for everyone.

    I don’t know if that answer is naive or incomplete, but that’s my answer. If we all care a little bit more about each other, and not solely about ourselves and our own place in things, then it lifts everyone up. If the rich man pays more in taxes so that everyone gets health care, the rich man gets health care, too. I have a rich friend who is constantly complaining about the price of his health care “going up” every year (“because of Obama!”) and I tell him, “if only there was some collective pool we could all support that would give us a group plan.”

    That makes sense to him. Until I say “taxes” instead of “collective pool” or “universal” instead of “group plan.” But the truth is, caring for everyone is better for everyone. Even the selfish, whether they like the idea or not.

    The problem isn’t with empathy, the problem is we get sold constantly (like you mentioned) that empathy robs us of our own potential, or our “strong” leaders. As long as someone out there is saying “I am better than you or anyone else” and enough fools believe them we will continue to lift the needs of the few over the needs of the many. And the crazy thing is that those who serve the needs of the few often do so against their own better needs. Crazy world, this.

    Why do we need empathy? Why should we care about each other?

    Because it is better for everyone.

    Am I wrong about that?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Well said, old boy. It’s tough that those with wealth and power can’t see the benefit… or even the impending loss of their own humanity. Empathy doesn’t really have to cost us anything. And, as I’ve said on many occassions, if we are the greatest country in the world (for whatever that means and for whatever it’s worth, I believe we are), why would that not entail taking care of all of our citizens, the browns ones and the poor ones and the U.S. territories included?

      Liked by 2 people

      • Thanks, Justin. Great point on the U.S. territories bit; we really dropped the ball on Puerto Rico after Maria.

        As for the “greatest country” bit, I don’t buy it. Until America learns that “everyone” includes more than an elite minority of the 4.5% of the population that resides only within its borders, the United States will run well behind much of the rest of the world in “greatness.”

        Liked by 2 people

    • I absolutely love your answer Tom! I think brevity is an art form and your statement says it all. Come to think of it, I’m gonna crowdsource all my big ideas now 😄 especially with your insights in there!

      Factually you are correct, it is better for everyone to care for each other, we see it in so many examples everywhere. Even kids as young as toddler age learn to look after each other in my kid’s nursery school, it teaches the kids responsibility, gives them confidence: they are proud to be helpful, and helps the caregivers manage bigger groups. Humans caring for humans is a win win, not a zero-sum game.

      But those benefits constantly get overwritten by emotions, ahem “Trumped” by egotism and greed. Every time I mention immigration in a post, I anticipate getting accused of putting citizen’s needs secondary to refugees. I noticed both Democrats and Independents are being accused of this same thing too “he/she wants open borders”, “they are letting migrants pour in” etc. It really bothers me that these things are tied together, I want to shout from the rooftops: We can have better living standards for citizens and still help refugees! We can do BOTH!! Just as you spoke about healthcare, once you detached it from “tax” and “Obama” then it was acceptable! There’s no reason why all Americans shouldn’t have the highest living standards: universal healthcare, cheap tuition, top notch schools, advanced infrastructure– it has the money and the resources to have all of these things, the people just have to want it and elect capable people who want it too!! It’s not socialism or communism! Germany, Japan, Norway, Finland, Sweden all these countries have all those things and they are democracies! I want all Americans to reap the benefits of being the richest country in the world just as much as I want anti-immigrant parties and racists to lose power! There’s no reason why we can’t have both!

      Caring is better for everyone. Truly. I haven’t even touched on the benefits mentally and creatively either, I’ll leave it for now! I’ll just say, that the benefits of compassion go beyond the material, their positive effects may be unfathomable, yet even if I were never to reap any rewards for my compassion for another human being, I will be satisfied because I have witnessed and experienced the effects of indifference, hate and cruelty first hand, which too is unfathomable in its destruction.

      Liked by 1 person

      • And that, my friend, is why you are among the finest humans, anywhere. I could not have said any of that better myself. We CAN do BOTH! In fact, we must. If we are to survive, we must.

        Your powerful ending made me think of this: it is time we stopped being upset by our own empathy. We see the cruelty in the world, we want to change it, but (for some reason) our empathy has been associated with negative emotion. Let’s change the world. Let’s shift the paradigm. From now on, our compassion is only associated with positive emotions. Let those filled with hate suffer the consequences of their own negativity. We are here to make a positive difference, and we’ll do it with our own positive empathy. Way to go, sister!

        Liked by 1 person

        • 😊Thanks so much brother!! As the saying goes: You don’t see the world, you see yourself. So I’ll just leave it at that with that incredible compliment you gave me!😄

          What you wrote has preoccupied me as well. I am actually trying to write about that topic soon, I notice that empathy and awareness also brings enormous pain: shame, guilt, sorrow, ineptitude, fury and we’ve seen this bring down the wise and talented, as well as the reckless and powerful alike. You are so right that many of us have been focusing on the negative so much that we can’t see a way out of it, lost in cynicism. It’s time to map the positive aspects and set the path going forward! Together🤗!

          Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much! I totally agree! We should see compassion as a strength and truly appreciate all its benefits! Unfortunately or fortunately (however you want to see it), we each have to make that decision ourselves individually and not just in one moment but continuously. The results are tragic when many people do not come to that conclusion.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. What came to me, even before finishing reading this, “Fill the void with love.” This is something I am actively trying to do for myself. When there is a “space” a “gap” a lacking for an answer, put positive energy, love, whatever it is that generates warmth in your heart and makes you genuinely happy in that emptiness before hate, bigotry and all the “ism’s and “ists” go to fill it. When those who don’t know what love is go to fill the spaces, they will find love and may be we will finally start getting to where we want to go as a world. It doesn’t mean forget or denial that bad things are happening, wearing rose colored glasses and such. It’s transformation with love – alchemy of love.
    anger in Simple Gematria equals: 45
    love in Simple Gematria equals: 54

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for the Reblog! And (as always) for the beautiful comment! I love what you wrote, “Fill the void with love.” Awesome!!!

      I also love how you mentioned “void”, I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately, about all the stuff in the universe being made up mostly of empty space, as well as how we perceive other people–we fill in the gaps with assumptions, the voids/gaps/blindspots which are relatively huge. We can’t separate our perception from reality and we can’t separate ourselves from our definition of others, these things are essentially, intrinsically co-dependent. We tend to fill those voids with the worst or the best assumptions. The problem with using the worst assumptions is they become a reality (at the very least for the perceiver) whether or not they were actually true in the first place. But if we fill the void with love, that also can become a reality, a much more wonderful one for sure! I’m totally with you on that!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your comment! Biological and Cultural Anthropology are some of my favorite subjects. There are so many examples of cooperation benefitting both the individual and the group as a whole, in the past and present day. What frustrates and intrigues me the most are the stresses and limits of that cooperation and the borders of one’s perceived “group” or “tribe”. At these edges, we have both conflict and creativity. Some people (Paul Bloom comes to mind) believe the solution is not more empathy but a more rational form of compassion, while others argue we should simply expand our sense of empathy to all people, not just a select few or the ones most similar to us. At any case, I don’t think we would be alive as a species without empathy or compassion and our lives wouldn’t be so fascinatingly complex.

      Liked by 1 person

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