What Are We Without Empathy?

Empathy
Empathy (Photo credit: TonZ)

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 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.”

Eyebrows can also help portray empathy.
Eyebrows can also help portray empathy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Eyebrows can also help portray empathy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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

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