Empathy Is Emotional Courage

(“The Pope of Harvard Square” | Signs for the Homeless)

(“The Pope of Harvard Square” | Signs for the Homeless)

We talk about being one race but if we meant it, it would mean we would have to suffer along with each other.

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

On my Facebook feed, a video of a public servant resuscitating a dog; the next video, a public servant shooting a 50-year-old man. The suspect tries to flee and with no attempt to give chase, the officer opens fire. There was an opportunity to revive the suspect, but the officer opts not to, and instead handcuffs the man who has been face-down for several minutes. The dog lives, the person dies. It was by sheer coincidence that these videos were shown next to each other, but now that I've seen them in this sequence, how should I feel about this?

Know Your Values

Why do I think the way I do? Why am I reacting this way? The purpose of self-reflection is to work out questions like these. And without self-reflection, we are left incoherent and confused, yet still opinionated and argumentative.

Incoherent, confused, opinionated, and argumentative is now a common mode of being; I, however, enjoy clarity. But self-reflection reveals harsh self-truths, which is why there is no beneficial change that comes with denial.

Reading the comments of the animal rescue video, the consensus was, saving a life is good. In stark contrast, regarding the slain human, there was heated disagreement.

Our Love-Hate Relationship With Ourselves

We have this ability to humanize animals and dehumanize humans. It is the mismatch of a soldier being able to rescue a cat while fighting in a war with other humans; the enemy is no longer human but the cat is one of our own. We can love an animal as much as a person, but we can hate a person more than we could ever hate an animal. The actions of animals do not cause introspection, we don't think all animals are evil, whereas one misdeed by a fellow human can have us questioning humanity and its inherent goodness. Since human connection causes us distress, we misguidedly seek to divorce ourselves from it.

We see animals as basic and needy, in need of our love and protection. We don't need sophisticated understanding to care for an animal, it doesn't require nuance; we make them a "thing." We don't need to know the history of their species or their culture. I wholeheartedly agree they deserve our respect, but respect requires reflection and I don't know if we reflect upon animals more than we do our iPads — though we should.

We project ourselves onto "things," whereas people will reject our projections. Things cannot reject our protection, our expectations, our love, and our control. If an animal were to reject us, we'd believe it didn't know better. If a person rejected us, we'd take it personally. Human interactions are conditional, with strings are attached. The same rules don't apply to animals, and unlike humans, they don't need to be grateful.

If an animal hurts another animal, we consider it a part of nature. When an animal hurts a human, we consider it an individual act. We don't judge all animals for it. But we judge whole groups of people based on the solitary acts of individuals. Why can't we apply the same logic we do for animals to ourselves?

A friend conjectured that it was because most animals have large eyes in relative comparison to the size of their heads. This is similar to the effect babies have on us. If eyes are windows to the soul, the larger the window, the more we can project the type of soul we'd like for them to have. Then, like a mirror, they become easier to like, because liking them is liking ourselves.

(Mother's love | Anton Croos)

(Mother's love | Anton Croos)

The Right Amount of Outrage

In February of 2014, at the Copenhagen Zoo, a giraffe named Marius was euthanized for a genetic defect. There was worldwide public outrage and even death threats to the staff of the zoo. At the same time, the death toll of the civil war in Syria was over 146,000. The worldwide outrage did not correspond to the death toll and the media coverage paled in comparison to the story of Marius. Then in 2015, the media moved onto Cecil the lion, then in 2016 to Harambe the gorilla. Only when the Syrian crisis was too big to ignore did the world pay attention, yet there was no unanimous agreement as there were with the slaying of animals with names.

One may say, well what does one have to do with the other? Empathy. And what is easier to empathize, different skin or different species? Being a humanist is hard because we're confronted with our own vulnerabilities and mortality — our humanity. Something we are continuously trying to transcend, through religion, the occult, and now technology. Our own death scares us and seeing things that look like us dying makes the strongest of us tremble. We don't share these stories because most of us would consider it poor taste. Talk of human death is bad manners because it causes us discomfort.

Sometimes, it is the trivial that outrages us, just because of that — it is trivial. It is within our ability to grasp. Genocide and war can be beyond our emotional comprehension. Things go viral when it is the right amount of outrage, when it is too much, we look away. There needs to be a certain level of apathy for it to be ubiquitous. Then we should not be surprised when this outrage produces very little change.

What We Pay Attention To

There is a joke among journalists, that investigative reporting will never be profitable because people would rather hear about puppies and babies. (Some say the Syrian crisis hit a tipping point when the media made the narrative about a single slain child.) And that has been the criticism, that legacy journalism doesn't give the people what they want. If they want "fluff," then the people have spoken. Yet this discounts the value of education, which is often the thing we don't want but still an important thing that we need. Journalism isn't meant solely to be a form of entertainment; it can improve our quality of life by exposing wrongdoings of people in positions of authority. It can serve as a line of defense for the people, to educate, and to let those in charge know that we are watching and we will hold them accountable.

Would we be a better society if we only get what we want? Or is there also a need for ideas that challenge us to grow as a society? Empathy needs a certain level of emotional sophistication. When a person is killed, there is outrage but not by everyone. Not everyone who felt outrage for Marius or Cecil may feel the same for people. We may not empathize because they are of another group, another race, or another gender. We make them into this "other" — less than human. They become "them;" rather than people, they become "those people." Their deaths don't count, it happens too often. It's an abstract statistic rather than a tragedy. Rather than murder, it becomes slaughter — like animals, all looking the same.

Why did the photo of one dead child touch us more than previous photos of countless dead, which also included children? We can imagine losing one child, but when there are multiple, our emotional system overloads. There is too much input for there to be outrage — too much pain because this group is constantly suffering. We know being a humanitarian one time wouldn't be enough, and perhaps nothing we could do would be enough. It's beyond our individual control.

We talk about being one race but if we meant it, it would mean we would have to suffer along with each other. We can be angry about Marius because it doesn't make us feel bad or guilty, we have no skin in the game. We are not exposing ourselves or putting ourselves out there. Being angry about the death of a person causes arguments because it's something we can feel guilty and responsible about. We can't sit on the sidelines and hide, we're forced to expose ourselves and our feelings to others, and their feelings onto ourselves.

Empathy Is Evolved Sympathy

Sympathy is simplified empathy. Sympathy requires no connection, it is feeling pity for someone while separating yourself from them. "At least, I'm not like them." It requires no sensitivity and understanding. You see their pain and shield yourself from it. They feel bad but you don't feel that way, you feel sorry they feel that way. Rather than trying to understand how another person may feel, allowing their feelings onto yourself, you project your feelings onto them. You don't empathize because you believe if you were them, you would have somehow acted differently. This is common in sexual assault, "I get that you feel bad, and I'm sorry. But you should have defended yourself. I would have." You feel a little bit of what they feel, you feel "for" them, but you don't drop your guard enough to feel "into" what they feel. You want to believe you are stronger than they are, denying their pain helps you cope with your own weaknesses — the possibility that you could similarly suffer in their situation. So you disavow that possibly. It could never happen to you, you tell yourself, not in a million years. You are not helping them, it's self-serving to make yourself feel better. The focus isn't on easing their pain, it is about making yourself feel better. They become a cautionary tale. This invariably makes the other person feel worse — the group suffers, then we all suffer.

You sympathize "for" or you empathize "with." Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. You feel into them; rather than severing connections, you create more connections. You drop your guard and allow yourself to be vulnerable; this takes a lot of courage. Creating a deeper level of understanding, background, history, and thought process — creating a bond. Community is the best way to ease someone else's suffering.

As people, we have opinions, in a democracy, we can disagree. Animals don't give contrary opinions; they don't disagree with our politics. They can never correct our grammar. They don't judge us or call us fat and ugly. Their lack of opinions makes us feel better about ourselves. They don't challenge us.

We sympathize for animals, we don't empathize with them. We can interpret their situation the way we want to and they cannot argue. (The legal basis against beastiality is that, we can never know what an animal is thinking.) It can never be the same as a relationship with a human being. We don't need to connect to that pain. We don't need to be vulnerable or reduce ourselves. We can stay the benevolent master. We can never spend a day in their shoes. What we would do in their situation wouldn't even cross our minds, whereas it would with a person. And the possibilities of us suffering like an animal is too abhorrent to consider, so we avoid it. We avoid empathy and introspection. When we help an animal, we feel good because we know we've done enough. We're a good person. When we consider helping a person, we wonder if we should be doing more. There's just more to it. There are easier ways to feel like a good person other than helping another person. But is that what it's about? How we feel? What about how they feel?

The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World

Animal suffering becomes human suffering and human suffering becomes animal suffering. We can bring something far away closer because it is still far away. If we bring something close any closer, we bring them into ourselves. It's sometimes easier to help those in other countries than helping those in our own country — Africans over African-Americans. We create an emotional barrier, helping without getting caught up.

Is self-interest the only reason to do good things? To improve our self-image? To promote more self-love? Sociopaths can treat their pets or spouses with care because they see them as their property, an extension of themselves and their reputation. With helping others, if it doesn't somehow help ourselves, is the default thought, "Why bother?" Is there such a thing as loving ourselves too much and loving others too little?

Maslow's hierarchy of needs states that when all basic needs are met, we get creative with needs. Depending on where we are, perhaps we will be outraged by the practical. If all needs are met, however, perhaps we can only be outraged by the novel. Yet with so much outrage, disproportionate in importance, we will fatigue of both.

Ironic Social Conscience

Many people feel conflict over eating animal products, or purchasing products that have harmed an animal. Yet avocados, now a popular superfood, comes with a high human price. Dubbed "blood avocados," many Mexicans are killed to supply Americans with their avocado fix. There was nearly no outrage when this was reported. In fact, little has changed. Quinoa comes with the same human baggage. There are human costs to bring us Jansport, Nautica, North Face, and many other brands and labels. We create child slavery to produce palm oil in Malaysia and chocolate from Africa. And let's not forget our love for diamonds. We fight for our rights to use marijuana but the price of our leisure has also meant the suffering of others. Worst of all, however, is our most ubiquitous relationship; our sordid and tragic history with sugar — which has involved slavery to genocide. And we ignore this.

And I Think I Know Why...

It's too hard, too tragic to see a person as a person and watch them suffer. We can feel the suffering of an animal because we don't see them as our grandmother, our father, as ourselves. It's easier to say goodbye to an animal when the time comes. It's much harder when dealing with a person we love because the pain we feel is much deeper. We're sometimes unable to handle that loss. No matter how much we love a pet or consider them a family member, it's rare to hear of anyone dragging them on beyond their expiration. Why a person may keep a family member alive even after the soul has departed, would be self-evident. We get it and no explanation is needed.

Human death is like watching a mirror image expire. It reflects on us and brings into question if we could have somehow prevented it. It leaves us vulnerable and frail and many of us can't handle that. This is why empathy is the greatest example of strength. To put ourselves into the emotional line of fire and to constantly repeat the process. An animal is metaphoric death of the self; a person is literal death. Today, we no longer feel emotionally equipped for severe realities. I know this first-hand. I wrote a tribute about the death of my dog not long after she died. It took me much longer to write about the deaths of close family members. This doesn't mean I love my dog more than my family, her death was just easier to talk about.

When I volunteer, helping animals is a lot easier for me than it is to work with senior citizens. The physical requirements working with seniors is more relaxed, it's the emotional elements that are challenging. The path to working with animals is often paved with similar stories. People often give up meat after the death of a loved one. I have heard more than one celebrity say, the reason they work with animals is because they survived rape. In fact, there are over three times as many animal shelters as there are women and children's shelters. You may think, then wouldn't it make more sense to work with battered women or at-risk children, or other survivors? They have traumatic energy they want to use for good, but working with animals fulfills their need without triggering their trauma.

An empathetic friend said she didn't understand how people could drop everything for an animal yet give a person in need the cold shoulder. But we don't need to be emotionally vulnerable with animals and tell them how we went through the same. But with each other, we do. It's easier for some of us to be physically vulnerable than to let our guards down. Humans are much more complicated.

We don't avoid human suffering because we hate people or think less of them, it's the opposite, we care too much for them. We don't want to highlight it, we are less likely to share it. If we hated people, all we would want to hear about is their suffering. We don't know what to do when we care so deeply, so we shut down. Like fear, when we are afraid, we run; when we are beyond afraid, we freeze. Animals provide us a way to deal with death without making it personal.

Empathy Keeps Us All Alive and Happy

Yet empathy for other human beings was a key to our survival. We are the most cooperative of species, our brains are designed to make others a part of ourselves. This was essential; protecting others was protecting our resources. Creating more connections and allies meant expanded resources. Not only are we equipped to handle empathy, we’re hardwired for it. Empathy is a muscle that needs to be flexed if it is to grow. The same is true of courage and resilience.

Groups that say "our" instead of "my," tend to live relatively longer and happier lives. Though connection can spread suffering, it also diffuses it. As we empathize with others, they in return will empathize with us. We become examples for others to learn from and they become examples for ourselves. Though we may not directly serve ourselves, when we protect the whole, the whole can then better protect the individual. Connection and community are the linchpins for happiness. Isolation and loneliness are the linchpins for misery. In the longest living groups, diets and lifestyle can vary; the common factor is community. This is why a pill can never replicate the results. The people who live the longest, live close to loved ones, get frequent visits, interact regularly, and laugh, suffer, and feel together. We're happy when there is someone to be happy with, we live longer when there is a someone to live for.

We all have varying degrees of empathy, but the lack of empathy is sociopathy. Without empathy, in a society of only sociopaths, how would we have survived? Just like sticks, we're only durable in a bundle.

A moment of solidarity, Lincoln Memorial Aug. 28, 1963

A moment of solidarity, Lincoln Memorial Aug. 28, 1963

Empathy is essential for a functional society. Survivability of every species (including human) depends on protection and growth of the herd. That is empathy and every animal has some level of it for its own species. Thinking only of yourself can kill the herd. (Think of someone who has a dangerous disease who doesn't use protection when having sexual intercourse.)

When we don't know how we feel, our feelings can be overwhelming. We need to reflect upon ourselves and grow in fortitude. When I hear stories of human beings overcoming the most impossible of odds, I am reminded that we are not physically the strongest species, but we are mentally the most resilient. When I hear of volunteers helping people in need, I am reminded why humans are so special. That's an ideal worth striving for.

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