“Tenderness and kindness are not signs of weakness and despair, but manifestations of strength and resolution.”
“When a good man is hurt all who would be called good must suffer with him.”
“The most valuable things in life are not measured in monetary terms. The really important things are not houses and lands, stocks and bonds, automobiles and real state, but friendships, trust, confidence, empathy, mercy, love and faith.”
“If you cannot feel the pain of a stranger, it cannot be said that you truly love anyone but yourself.”
-St. Brian the Godless
Empathy and Intellect
I doubt that anybody can deny that many of the worst people in our history were intelligent. Hitler may have been stark raving mad, but his intellect was not in question. In fact, in order to be truly evil on a global scale, it may even be said that one must be very intelligent indeed, for evil on such a large scale requires careful planning.
When I was a child I revered intellect like most Christians revere Jesus. I thought it automatic evidence of goodness, indeed as inherently good in and of itself. I was sadly mistaken, as I learned later on in life. Many of the smartest people around are the worst examples of humanity out there. They dedicate their intellects to the pursuit of their selfish and egotistical ends rather than to accomplishing good in the world. To me this seemed a conundrum when I first encountered it. Why, when you have intellect, would you ever devote it to selfish ends? To me, it seemed illogical.
I didn’t realize at the time that there are two components to the balanced person, two factors which must be in an equilibrium of sorts within the personality in order for the person to truly be a good and decent human being while retaining effectiveness in the world.
Empathy and Intellect.
The ancient Chinese depicted this by the familiar but not well understood Yin-Yang symbol of blended opposites, and even ancient Jews had the concept of Chochma and Binah, kabalistic symbols of the eternal balance between male and female, or positive and negative. The balance between the emotional mind versus the rational mind. Intuition and empathy versus intellect and logic. Lateral thinking versus linear thinking. And even Liberal versus Conservative. Two poles or extremes, either of which by itself inadequate and harmful, but when balanced properly, the optimal most effective path in the world, both spiritually and materially.
We seem to have a good idea what knowledge and intellect is, and what an intelligent person is, but not so many of us understand empathy in equally clear terms. Very few of us give it the importance that it deserves in our minds, for it is the very seat of all human goodness. Without empathy, intellect automatically turns to evil ends, for without empathy logical reasons can be found to justify most any selfish action, even very heinous ones. Without empathy, there is no guilt. And without empathy, there can be no love.
What is empathy?
If a person sees a child suffering, they tend to feel compassion for it. This is a rather basic example of empathy, and most of us do possess it at this level. If a person sees another person carrying a heavy load, they might be inclined to help them with it. This is also a simplistic example of empathy at its most basic level. Of course, there’s a lot more to it than that.
Now it may be said that to be Pro-Life is a form of empathy, since you’re hopefully empathizing with the unborn life. But when you talk to some of the people that declare themselves Pro-Life, they often reveal that they are only so due to ideological reasons, and not due to actual real empathy on their parts, since they feel nothing for the poor and starving already-born children in our society, falling through the cracks, receiving inadequate medical care and education, often turning to a life of crime and drugs, and dying violently at a young age. These same “Pro-Life” people are also often Pro-War, which is actually anti-empathy, the very opposite of it. And the Pro-Life movement is noticeably unconcerned with the health of the mother, and her choices in her life, and she’s a person too. So they feel selective empathy, if any at all. Perhaps they do feel something for the “babies’” lives that are lost, but let’s face it, it’s a lot easier to feel empathy for an imaginary helpless baby than it is for an autonomous adult, albeit no more important in the scheme of things. They care about the unborn babies, but once they’re born they tend to forget all about them. This is not empathy at all. It’s self-serving at best. It isn’t based in love of others, but in love of self. And of course, also based in love of their particular religious dogma, which is basically the same thing.
Real empathy is elusive. It’s not something easily defined. I think it is perhaps easier to get a handle on if you simply think of it as love. Not romantic love and not love of family or a pet, but simply love for all others, based in the idea of universal brotherhood. Love for others based on nothing more than the knowledge that the other person is a person too, just another version of ourselves, trying their best to make their way in the world like we are, and as such deserving of our love, as we are of theirs. And it’s a type of love that allows us to feel their pain and to celebrate their happiness, as if they were a member of our family. In its ideal form, this type of love can and should extend not only to all other people, but to all other life.
To truly love thy neighbor must mean to learn to see life through their eyes, to learn to use your imagination to picture how they see life, in order to relate to them. In order to accomplish this it is necessary to temporarily give up your own presuppositions and prejudices and to instead imagine having those (if any) of the other person. You must imagine being them, literally, in order to truly empathize with them, in order to love them. It’s an acquired skill.
The ancient Jews used to say to be careful how you treat a stranger, because the stranger may be an angel in disguise. This begins to get at the idea of empathy. If we treated everyone as if they were an angel sent here to test our love for others, we would at least develop the behavior patterns that lead to real empathy.
Now what if you happen to be a fundamentalist Christian and are confronted with an atheist? You are commanded to love them, but how can you love an atheist? After all, they’re against everything that you’ve been taught is good and pure.
Well, the interesting thing is, real love, real empathy, transcends Christian dogma. It has to. All Christians have been commanded by Christ Himself to love their neighbors, to thus love all others, and here such a command is in apparent conflict with the rest of their faith. However it is a direct, specific command from Jesus Christ, so it must be of some great importance, and as such must take precedence over the rest of the Christian dogma when such conflicts arise. So the Christian cannot condemn the atheist nor attempt to convert him or her to their faith, in spite of how much they may wish to. This would not be love. This would not be empathy. This would be selfishness and egotism, since it is incredibly egotistical to think that you are fit to judge others. Jesus specifically warned against this, lest we forget. Judge not, lest ye be judged.
Empathy is an aspect of the emotional or intuitive mind. This is in opposition to the rational, logical mind. Balance between the two is the key to personal growth. When you learn to see things as others see them, you eventually learn to see how they see you. And once you can see how others see you, and learn to average out the impressions that others seem to have of you, you then possess one of the most important keys to your own personality that you can ever have: An unbiased view of yourself. Once you have that and internalize it, you naturally start to change into being more of the person that you want to be, instead of merely being what you started out as. You start to evolve.
Empathy in a world leader is of paramount importance, and yet is one of the rarer qualities exemplified in such leaders. Too much intellect without enough empathy to balance it makes the tyrant; the opposite makes the ineffectual dupe. There must be balance.
You see, the problem is that empathy isn’t the most attractive trait in a candidate. In our society it’s usually confused with wimpiness, and nobody wants a wimpy leader. This is because of the fact that empathy in its most extreme form, unchecked by intellect, is indeed wimpiness, just as intellect in its most extreme form, unchecked by empathy, is utter tyranny. The voters aren’t perceptive enough to realize that a certain amount of empathy is absolutely crucial in order to insure that the leader’s intellect isn’t easily turned to selfish ends, and thus they throw out the baby with the bathwater. They see black and vote white, never thinking that the optimal choice is a balance of the two.
Too often we humans, when confronted by a choice, see something that we don’t like in one option and reflexively choose the other without sufficient reflection on all factors involved. We get into a lot of trouble that way.
On the surface McCain looks pretty good. War hero, experienced, a “maverick…”
On the surface Obama seems a bit wimpy by comparison. But as you delve beneath the surface it is clear that the more balanced individual by far is Obama. To McCain, everything is a war, everything is a fight. It’s all he knows. Such a personality cannot empathize with anybody but a soldier perhaps. They certainly cannot learn to feel the pain of the middle class, and the poor. And thus, they will never do anything to alleviate their suffering. Obama has sufficient empathy to balance his stellar intellect, and that’s a lot of empathy. He’s non-confrontational, but can confront when he needs to, and very effectively. He’s not a Jimmy Carter, who was after all a brilliant man, but lacked enough rational side to balance his emotional side. Obama has the right mix. McCain is a study in one-sidedness. He’s incredibly imbalanced, with no discernable empathy whatsoever. He even looks stiff when he hugs his wife. And his temper is legendary. McCain is self-focused. Obama is other-focused. McCain went to war in Vietnam, and when he got back he went into the senate, parlaying his POW experience into enough pity to get him elected. Obama had the world at his feet when he graduated Harvard Law, and chose public service at the community level instead of self-aggrandizement. He chose a noble profession, and excelled at it. His whole campaign is other-focused. That’s why his appeal is so incredibly broad.
We face a choice this Tuesday. Let’s hope that we have the sense as a country to finally choose a person with some balance, rather than reflexively choosing an imbalanced one-sided man with the potential to harm this country at so many levels, just because we think our president should act like John Wayne rather than John Kennedy.