Imagine a scenario. You are a respected psychology professor at the local university. The university is deeply invested in uplifting the local community and you have been an active participant in many of its community service projects.
It’s a chilly winter evening and you have decided to take a stroll down the neighboring park. You normally avoid that route as there are many homeless people in and around the park, occupying benches and begging for money and food. Although you consider yourself a consciences person, over time like any socially adjusted adult, you have learned to filter out distractions and have your schedules & priorities straight.
But on this particular evening, you are about to see something you can’t take your eyes off from. Crouching on a bench in tattered clothes is a middle-aged man who has an uncanny resemblance to your late father from his younger years. All of a sudden your defensive, get me out of here frame drops. Your visual cortex processes the sight and sends signals back your mirror neurons. A sudden rush of chill takes over your body with the accompanying goosebumps despite the fact that you are well covered. You are now looking at him very carefully and the frostbites on his feet are sending shivers down your own spine.
Eckhart Tolle calls it a pain body attack[i]. It’s not the objective sight which is causing you pain. You are causing you pain by the meaning you are deriving from it. My question, then to you is this; what do you do now? If your answer is to react and jump into action to relieve the discomfort you feel by offering money, food or even your own overcoat to him, you have gotten yourself into the empathy trap.
The Empathy Trap
In my previous blog post titled A case against Empathy, I had covered the dangers of having too much empathy. Notice that I used the words “too much empathy” here as opposed to condemning empathy altogether. Those interested in reading more in depth on this topic can refer to the work of Paul Bloom in his book Against Empathy: A case for Rational Compassion.
I am sure many could relate from their personal experiences with what I wrote. So, if empathy is all that bad, why do we, ahem… empathize? I mean empathy would have to have some evolutionary advantages for our species and that’s a fair point.
Intuitively, I have come to realize that our ancestors from the hunter/gatherer era lived in tribes in an extremely hostile terrain. Survival must have depended upon their ability to work together as a team. For Social bonding and trust to occur, it would have been imperative for them to keep their empathy hats on or risk being ostracized from their tribes.
I think this is part of the reason why people in modern societies are suffering from isolation and depression, especially in old age. Sufficiency took away their need to build organic relationships in the formative years.
Empathy is the ONE ace card every mother has up her sleeve when dealing with a crying toddler on the bewildered, clueless father – Feminine energy connects to feel whilst masculine energy detaches to observe.
My evolving perspective on empathy (gotta embody the namesake ☺) is to recognize it for what it is; a torchlight amplifying the feelings of another by getting into their shoes. Think of graph with x & y-axis. Empathy allows you to be positioned on a set of coordinates on that graph and see things from a vantage point. The vantage point may have some valuable information for decision making of course but its very nature is narrow in scope. What works fabulously at home doesn’t work in the domain of public policy for those in leadership positions. To counter the myopic nature of empathy, Bloom has suggested that we practice what he calls, Rational Compassion. [ii]
Moving from Empathy to Rational Compassion
Let’s return back to the scene at the park with you empathizing with the homeless man who looks like your father. What if, instead of reacting immediately to offer him help, you took a pause and analyzed the situation from your broader, rational perspective. If you really took the trouble to do a deeper reflection you will be shocked at what insights are revealed by the process. You may come to the realization that the homeless man is probably a drug addict simply manipulating and guilt tripping the overly sensitive and directionless folks out there. Ad hoc charity without an underlying purpose lacks depth.
Charles Goodman in his book Consequences of Compassion[iv] notes that the Buddhist speak of the bodhisattva as an enlightened person who recognizes empathy as a hot flame, which cannot be sustained indefinitely and will lead to burnout.
Armed with an acute knowledge of human psychology you may also realize that the neural pathways in his brain are reinforcing and perpetuating the irresponsible behavior he is being rewarded for[iii]. Your selective kindness is not affirming him of his innate ability to take charge of his life. In fact, your supposedly well-meaning actions can’t even be considered charitable, ethically speaking. They are physiological, stemming from your inability to manage your arousal and hence impulsive.
You could perhaps think about taking up social activism for removing drugs from the streets in your community. But whatever you decide to do, keep this mind that the biggest bang for the buck comes from taking on a systemic, proactive approach to impacting one’s environment at a macro level. You have a specific skill set and influence in your chosen domain and the biggest impact you can cause to your surrounding is by asserting your influence through that channel.
In the end, your best response is probably to walk away from the tense situation. Onlookers including the beggar may cringe at what looks on the surface as an inhumane behavior but you know much better. You are thinking rationally.You know what assignment you are going to give to your students next summer; Is your empathy the real culprit for keeping people on the streets? Empathy will constrict your love locally. Rational Compassion could liberate it globally.
[i] Tolle, E. (1997) The Power of Now, Namste Publishing
[ii]Bloom, P. (2016) Against Empathy : A Case for Rational Compassion, Harper Colins
[iii]Duhigg, C. (2012) The Power of Habit, Random House
[iv] Goodman, C (2009) Consequences of Compassion: An Interpretation and Defense of Buddhist Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press.