empathy is limited

Skiu-village, 2010 - Ladakh Floods, India - (7 Aug 2010 - Quentin Talon)

Skiu-village, 2010 – Ladakh Floods, India – (7 Aug 2010 – Quentin Talon – wikimedia commons) (source:wikipedia-http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f0/Skyu_2010.jpg)


I prefer not to watch videos/documentaries of war or natural disasters. Not Now. In my mind the process is over. I don’t want to load my emotional brain with extra input. I watched many events; most of them delayed for less than 24 hours, a few live.

These days I don’t watch the news on TV any more. The ‘ratings’ drive news gatherers to something different: sensation gathering, and not only the gathering, also the creation of it. The remaining fraction of our daily ‘news’ is gossip. Sometimes I hear news fragments on the radio.
I have also stopped reading the news on the internet. The major events reach me any way. I know there is trouble in Mali right now, and I get informed when one or the other mad man uses a gun to shoot innocent people in public places.

It is important that the news footage is indeed shown, seen and read, and kept for later reference. Just like all historical material is needed for any reference to world consciousness. But as I just said, for me this is not now.

We are bombarded daily with uncontrollable events from far and away: second hand emotions. In 99.9% of the cases, this news does not matter to me personally. Of course the news about the Tsunami in Japan concerns every world citizen. And the news about Syria also does concern everyone. But apart from asking ourselves questions about the futility of existence, there is most often not much we can do with this information.

Of course there is compassion. And there is empathy. I can vividly see before my eyes a fragment of the news of the Tsunami in Japan, where you see people fighting for their lives running up a hill. Then I feel so much empathy. But my empathy is not limitless. (Perhaps compassion can be limitless; when people talk about compassion fatigue they really talk about limited empathy)

When I was in India my family told me how they had survived floods in Ladakh, 2 years ago, and how they managed to save some others, but also how they saw some being carried away by the water. This really concerned me, but I never saw anything about it on TV. Only a phone call, while we were unaware yet, to tell us that they were safe. That phone call was enough. Sensation was/is not necessary.

Our world keeps growing, One day in the far away future we will be able to watch live events like a black hole eating entire planets. Is this going to be relevant? Everyday billions of beings die on earth alone. Everyday  something between 200000 and 300000 people die on earth, we cannot empathize with all that suffering. Everyday more than 350000 babies are born. We cannot rejoice for all of them.

Our brain is limited, and hence limited is our empathy and our compassion. We can say things about feeling compassion for all victims of war, but we will never see, hear or feel all victim’s suffering individually. Perhaps great minds can really feel the entire suffering of human kind.
But I cannot.

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45 thoughts on “empathy is limited

  1. An avid reader and follower of the news, I stopped all forms of news reading or listening or viewing on July 6, 2012, the day I started my blog. The only exceptions were Hurricane Sandy and the Sandy Hook shootings. I will never again pollute my brain with the continuous onslaught of horror that is world news coverage. It is harmful to our psyches…….

    • I get informed by people who watch things and tell me things like “you should see this!” and then I see a meteor flying through the sky on a wide screen TV.
      Interesting coincidence that both ‘Sandy’ disasters share the same first name.

  2. Good article, Bert.

    I am the same way. I don’t like to watch or listen to the news, and so I don’t. I hear about stuff from those who do and I empathize.

    I am what is called a “highly sensitive person” and an empath. Maybe others don’t empathize as much, and they can watch the news without becoming too disturbed, but not me.

    • We are all empaths, but most people have created a kind of sunscreen against suffering in others to not to get affected. The effect of seeing too much suffering on the daily news is the development of immunity from it. Building a huge wall. Not having built that large a wall, means that you are more yourself than most of the others. You are more vulnerable, but more human.

  3. It is very impressive that you are a “natural” philosopher. I find your posts unlike anything I have read– either that points to my ignorance or your creativity. I suspect both are true.

    Looked up Linux and barely understood the meaning. Not surprising that you could be teaching such a subject.

    Triggers– cannot see my way out of the sickness one despite knowing the origins. Your example of the triggers for anger easier for me to try to deal with. Those closest to us
    know our weaknesses and push the most powerful buttons.

    • My interest in the spiritual emerged and died a couple of times in the 20th century, however something happened in the beginning of 2002 that made it re-emerge another time, and it hasn’t died since. Elisabeth Meyler from Sweden gave me a list of books on transpersonal psychology. I read at least half of them in the following years.
      My interest in computers was born in 1979 when my sister started studying in college having access to programmable calculators. While Microsoft has always been a prison, linux is the ultimate freedom.
      Sometimes there is nothing else you can do but to undergo what has to be done. I hope you won’t be triggered too much.

      • Altered states of consciousness hooked me while in grad school for special education for autistic children. I dropped everything and pursued that and gave up on teaching and practically everything else. I have tried desperately to write about ASCs over the years and wrote a tiny bit in the psych memoir but now plan to write more. My mind keeps hitting a brick wall with these things. Interesting that you came in through the Transpersonal Psychology window. And wound up doing Linux. Maybe they complement each other in a way.
        And, yes, I am just going to do the visit next weekend and that’s it.

  4. We can only do what we can about these things and it helps if we know why they happen. As for excessive emotion; this is caused by “attachment”, hence, non-attachment (which, incidentally, is NOT uncaring) should be cultivated. Unemotional awareness of the “entire suffering” comes from the stilling of the mind which is the cause of emotions. Emotional detachment permits limitless compassion.
    🙂

      • So would you say sympathy feels the pain actually in the body, empathy understands the pain emotionally and compassion is emotionally detached but caring and can give the most.

        I have a huge problem with visiting the ill in hospital and feel ill myself when I walk in the door. Being surrounded by so many physically people pushes me to my limits. That, I guess, is a sympathetic response limiting how much I can help. I try to put on a brave front while all the time wanting to bolt. I seem to be stuck here at this spot and for a few reasons, one being my breakdown which destroyed my defenses extensively. Going to the hospital this weekend to visit a friend and next weekend to visit my aunt, creates huge anxiety. Also not living in the present is part of the problem. It was hell helping to take care of my father, and taking full care of my mother with my husband’s support, as they were dying. It would be so helpful to be able to go to compassion without sympathetic and empathetic responses to physical illness.

        • I thank Ian for the insightful link. For me love-compassion is one ‘thing’, going all level from physical love and comfort, over empathy (emotional), sympathy (perhaps mental) en beyond.
          If you could drop your mental screens, the visit to the hospital could be less frightening. It’s only about meeting people (I hear you – ONLY!!) and being open to listening and being present without having to do much more (smiling and caring from within) than that. Compassion is not a small thing. Empathy is part of it. The power lies in looking further than empathy and the emotional alone. We feel. We cannot avoid to feel. We shouldn’t be swept away too much by the emotion and let the past interfere, or let the mental take over spiralling away in ever larger circles till it becomes too much. We shouldn’t let fear come in, fear for our past experiences and future expectations. The latter might be all wrong, the first are not going to happen again in the same way.

          • Thank you so much for taking the time to respond, especially since you have had so many comments lately– a tribute to how interesting your posts are. I appreciate how busy you must be with everything in your life.
            Your teaching me about mental screens is helpful– never heard fears talked about that way. And helpful also to think of the past not happening again in the same way– never heard that expressed. My mental state is way, way out of control.
            I volunteered in a hospital once and could not handle it– they finally put me in the bandage room. “Cowards die a thousand times…” But I do remember Pema saying her first husband told her that despite her many, many fears of little things, she was brave because she did them anyhow.

            • Oh, I love that dialogue. I learned more in one year than in the 5 years preceding that one. A comment doesn’t cost time. Last week I had been teaching full time, so there was not much time for new posts.
              Memory does not only store facts, but mostly stores interpretations. An interpretation has been screened by different eyes. Today you are not the same person who you where 10 years ago. When you recall your memory, you will reinterpret the past interpretation and compare with the present interpretation. 3 interpretations and one comparison. This process is fear. Feeling insecure. Mind going round in circles.
              There is a difference between fears and triggers. A trigger is deeply ingrained. Is usually connected to a very painful experience in the past.
              But in this case, it is probably a fear of mental overload. Too much information to respond to, too many faces in the hospital to be investigated. If I understand you well, reading faces to you is very tiresome, takes processing in your mental conscious brain, for me it is nearly instantaneous, using my emotional brain. Perhaps, don’t look at all of them, and see them as cars in traffic jam (or is that a silly suggestion?).

            • Am touched by your concern, empathy & compassion. Your ideas and way of thinking are so new to me that I find them very instructive and unusual. My problems with hospitals/sickness/bodily functions is, in your schema, due to a very strong trigger– my father coming home drunk and sick when I was little. Out of control. And then there were/are the deaths as I grow older.
              As for the face thing, yes, it causes overload. I “sense” facial expressions but cannot interpret them and tend to think they are negative.
              Good suggestion… the traffic idea. I go into overload as soon as I step out of the apt. building into the street. Sometimes even just stepping out of the apt. because there are neighbors to meet and greet.
              Did miss your posts. Am trying to guess what you teach. Think it must be philosophy. In any case, thanks so much for caring.

            • I didn’t know that what I’m saying is new. It is authentic, as I have analysed things as far as I could with my limited mental capacities, and finally reached the conclusion that I will never know what is beyond mind, if there is something. This is liberating in itself: I don’t have to waste time any more on the subject of metaphysics. I’m not alone with this conclusion, there are many.
              I teach Linux and networking for computers. I have no diploma’s. To teach philosophy one needs to have read all the relevant books of most philosophers of the past 3000 years. Not having read most of them makes me unspoiled. I think for myself, and later I find out that there have been others who have reached the same conclusion before me.
              I want to publish a series of articles on the teachers in my life. I also want to publish short review on some books I read and have found interesting enough.

              Triggers are difficult things to tackle. You need to have the awareness on the triggers to see them. When you identify them as triggers they lose their power. Once an angry person smashed his laptop in anger in front of my eyes starting an abusive tirade. My first angry thought was: “you don’t do that to a laptop” and then next “Oh, they know my weak points … ” resulting in an almost robotic calmness.
              This doesn’t happen all the time. And often they still find my buttons. Especially the people I live together with. But knowing my background and history … if I can do this, anybody can do it.

  5. Very well said! I believe that, in a sense, we value victims of catastrophes more if we do not watch the news or rather “browse and click” them – and thus make their sufferings part of our daily routine and entertainment.

    • That is indeed a very dangerous trend: suffering becoming entertainment. However publicity doesn’t like to interrupt coverage of disasters. The advertisers don’t want to be associated with it. I think. Perhaps this hurdle has also been taken down already.

  6. Excellent observations. I too, have limited the amount of time I allow myself to be immersed in mainstream media…. the sensationalism is too much to absorb. Do I feel disheartened with tragedy in this world? Of course. Can I do something about it? Likely not. To say I can would make me arrogant enough to believe that I am that important in this world to make such changes. All I can do is contribute what I can when I can. I am only one drop in a vast sea that occupies this planet. I can love and nurture those who people my experience. I can love and nurture animals and nature. And like a drop of water that falls from the sky into the sea… it makes ripples. As we are all contributors in that way, our ripples…. or presence…. resonates to places further away than we will ever realize.

  7. I cannot empathize with all the catastrophes on TV either. TV, the media desensitizes one and makes situations seem unreal somehow.
    Was just thinking how hard-hearted I have become because I am inundated with petitions and charities and activist site online. I sign many petitions, give if we can, and hit delete for more. I cannot empathize with each and everyone. Like you say, great minds can. But I can’t. It seems easier for me to feel for the animals. But this flood of information and sensationalism is desensitizing.

    • Everyone has gotten a voice, and in consequence, the many voices start to sound like noise. And it isn’t the message any more that is important. Ridiculous details make youtube videos go viral. Twitter is even worse. Like sheep all looking in the same direction. But you made a great picture of that! 🙂

  8. Just a week back I caught up with my friends from Ladakh and we were recounting the horrors of the flood.
    In fact my poem “Ladakh” which you have liked, I wrote in the aftermath of the floods.

  9. I am also one of those who has given up television and news media. For me it is far better to be engaged in and compassionate with my local community, where my thoughts and actions may make a difference, or where we can share the burden of suffering – the rest for me is done in meditation – that’s the only way I feel I can contribute to the bigger picture without reaching overwhelm myself. Great post, Bert. Bless xx

    • Thank you for your reply. That is a great standpoint. However, we shouldn’t forget, now and then to also try and be responsible for our state, country and the world. Now and then we have to speak. It is a pity that the big corporations, banks and industries and their lobby have so much more to say in the national and international decision making than the people who elect the governments.

  10. I have to stop myself from doing this a lot of times, because it can cause the brain to just overload. I stopped watching regular or cable news as well, except for HLN, that is where I get my murder trial coverage lol. But that channel gives only limited amounts of daily tragedies. That is more than enough for me. I am an overthinker, and stories of tragedy can stick in my mind too long if I take too much in. So, I understand what you are saying completely. 😉

    • Thank you for your insightful comment. Watching the justice system from behind the tv system gives some satisfying insights in society. What we don’t get to see is the enormous amount of time it takes for one case to go from beginning to the end, and the enormous amount of administration it takes to get there. I often think that many judges really take their responsibility in interpreting the ‘one size fits all’ law again and again, in a tailor made fashion for every case.

      • I love following a case from the beginning. TV can not really provide this. For one reason, things said are not always acurate to say the least. The intrigue about trials is the way each side props things to make things seem the way they want it. I notice the Attorneys more than the judge usually, unless the judge does something obviously out of line. Like with the Arias trial, it has been four years since she killed her ex-boyfriend. So, there was a lot of things that went into this trial. As I am watching now I can see just how much time was taken in getting the defendent ready for the stand. The props andthe dramatics lol. I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if I were a defense attorney lol

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