Where Did All The Empathy Go?


What would life be without contradictions? Probably pretty peaceful, like that early morning tide up above. But even the ocean has it’s violent swells.

I fancy looking at an obvious contradiction in human behavior: emotions versus rationality. People say humans base their reason on their emotion, that emotions make us human; they allow us to connect with each other, love with each other, fight with each other, and grow with each other. People value things, activities, livelihoods, based on the quality of emotion they feel. You love your job therefore you put high value on your position. You love your children, your family, your friends, and therefore place high value on their lives and their happiness. An exuberant amount of value is placed on money since the rise and spread of capitalist type monetary systems mostly because of the items you can acquire. As a result, the more money you have, the higher you’re valued in society. Don’t agree? How many celebrities do you know to have stayed in jail longer than the booking process for drug offenses other people get life in prison for?

I call emotional standings and rationality a contradiction because for a society that bases their entire communicative foundation on understanding emotions, we seem to use them sparingly in regards to other people. We detach ourselves and instead base our interpretation of other’s troubles on pure, unadulterated reason. The homeless man is homeless because he’s a lazy drug addict. Certainly a logic reason, right? Following such linear thought is often rational. This pattern of rationality, and reason in general according to Hume, doesn’t tell us what we value, but helps us pursue what we value. In other words, reasoning the homeless man is an inept member of society because of problems we won’t empathize with reminds us of the value we place on things like financial stability. We pursue that stability, we pursue the infamous, often unobtainable “American Dream” because we value it and because those we see as valueless become our motivational tools.

But the simple fact is we are emotional beings. Our decisions are dictated by them. We know just how powerful they are, that’s why we use reason as means of escape. Why feel horrid understanding other’s suffering when you can feel satisfied knowing it’s not your problem? In the United States individualism is our centerpiece–work for yourself, fend for yourself, muscle through, work hard and you’ll achieve all you could dream for. But what is an individual without a cluster of other individuals? Lonely. Confined. Disorientated. Hopeless. Whether we like it or not, we are not born into this world understanding social customs, human rights, or morality, they are taught to us through observation of culture, of family, of peers, of media. We develop our self identity through others, so where then is the rationality in individualizing pain? We wouldn’t be who we are without each other and this is coming from someone 15 years deep in agoraphobia and social anxiety disorder.

Hume theorizes our reason overrides common feelings like sympathy and empathy, feelings that merge other’s pain with ours. The lack of such results in those individuals committing inhumane acts. Reason, in its purest form, could justify anything like a manipulative teenager. No one wants one of those in charge. Then we’d all be forced to listen to Nicki Minaj and twerk as the only form of acceptable exercise.

I say all of this not out of anger but out of hurt. No one dare invalidate my paranoid or nightmares of killing, being killed, or committing suicide. No one even dare mouth off about my mood swings or deficit in anger management. But the moment I mention anxiety is the moment I’m a fraud. My explanations aren’t met with encouraging phrases or helpful hints, only stories of someone else’s achievements, a sort of standard I’m expected to match, like that time in middle school she got through the class presentation by taking a deep breath and “just doing it” or that time he “just ignored it all”.

It’s often seen as my choice, just as it’s every homeless man and woman’s choice to be homeless. I’m just lazy. I’m weak. But i’m not lazy. I barely leave my room because I’m tired of dealing with the agony of stepping over the threshold of the front door. It’s not fun knowing everyone can see the uncomfortable perspiration on the tip of my nose, or the racing thoughts of “they’re laughing at me, they hate me, they’re giving me that stare because they know i’m odd, they despise my demeanor, they think I’m being rude, am I being rude? I must be being rude; i’m freaking out, they’re talking about me over there, he’s telling his wife I sound ignorant”. I’m not weak either; anyone who fights themselves every waking second of their life and manages to keep themselves alive is stronger than any steroid injecting, acne covered, small-balled bodybuilder. It takes a special person to cope with any mental illness, no matter how small.

And the reason many of us get these carefree answers like we do isn’t because we’re explaining anything wrong or because people don’t “understand”. They do understand, rationally, but lack some major skills in empathetic understanding. We learn as children when our buddy falls on his face and skins his knee of all things, he is hurting. We comfort him because we remember the time we skinned our knee or we see the red, oozing wound and deduce it as painful. However, a skill, a real talent, a true internal beauty must be nurtured and grown to comfort people in the same manner who experience pains unlike anything we’ve ever felt. If someone can muster a “that must be very difficult for you” or a “that sounds incredibly horrible” they may sound like some cheesy therapist fresh out of undergraduate school with their bachelor degree plastered over their eyes, but they’re giving a go at putting themselves in your shoes and I see hope in that. I see no hope in replies like “that sucks” or “Oh, sorry”.

People aren’t bad. Most aren’t cold-hearted, or reptilian, or deplorable but I’m a firm believer our priorities as individuals have led humanity astray much farther than ever intended. We value paper currency over human lives and use loose reason to justify it–that’s not a good sign. It’s rather ironic, isn’t it, seeing as none of that is rational in the slightest. Is it the irony we value? Or the stupidity? Do we even value the value we place on things? What the hell are we doing?

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