Ramadan is the month of empathy for the Muslims. They fast from dawn to dusk during the month. The feeling of being hungry and thirsty just as the poor can only be realized by practically going through this. The month of empathy creates the feeling of empathy for the poor.
The ancient Greeks regarded gods as beings who could not understand human experience. The New Testament regards God as entirely capable of such understanding. In fact, the New Testament claims that God became human. God’s empathy is through the incarnation. Jesus is one who necessarily empathizes with human experience because he himself is human. But he is also the presence of God in human experience. Jesus is, in effect, God empathizing with human experience. Jesus empathizes not only with humanity but also with God in the world. Jesus is Son of God who empathizes with human experience and Son of God who empathizes with God’s experience of seeking to be heard by humans. In Matthew (28:20), “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age”. Jesus embodies God’s ongoing presence in human existence. For our purposes we can say that Jesus is a manifestation of God actively empathizing with human existence.
(derived from monograph by L. Jervis)
My wife and I owned a Border Collie when we were first married. Anyone who owns one of these dogs can tell you that they are very clever. Some researchers have described Borders as having the cognitive ability of a 5 or 6 year old human. I would tend to agree. A very smart 5 or 6 year It was easy to anthropomorphize her. Yet, can we really know how any other being understands the world? We humans have a tendency to believe that other sentient beings understand the world just as we do. When confronted with evidence to the contrary, it is easy to convince ourselves that the other human or even a dog is misanthropic, antagonistic, or hurtful. Is that true? A very simple but insightful study of an individual dog points out that the world can be understood in very different ways. It suggests to me that for empathy, we sometimes need to dig deeper to see through the eyes of another. It may be foreign to us but valid for them to think differently. It is the height of hubris to believe that our mind process is superior, correct, or universal.
The mirror neurons in our brains allow us to observe and in turn imagine ourselves performing an action or experiencing an event. The same neurons fire when we make the observation real for ourselves. They also can fire when the experience is merely described. For example, “A large spider crawls up the leg of a child.” or “A hiker stumbles upon a skunk and startled, the skunk turns and sprays.” It also allows the brain to predict an action by observing a partial action. (A hand reaching in the direction of a soda can.) The action is inferred. Thus, sensations or emotions of another being can be empathized and understood. These phenomena can be directly observed with functional MRI imaging.
I suppose the existence of a physical structure in the brain makes perfect sense if these abilities are indeed inherited. Other animals have these same neurons and they have been extensively studied in monkeys.
As discussed in prior entries, social animals demonstrate empathic behavior. It is also quite obvious that they have social rules and enforce them. Does that mean that your dog or cat has a moral compass? And in turn, does that mean that we have moral obligations to them? There are many examples of animals demonstrating ostensible compassion or empathy to other animals or humans. It suggests that they have a sense of right and wrong and that they have “free will” to chose whether they will be good or bad. An argument against this would be that human morality includes wacky, nonsensical, and arbitrary taboos. Since animals don’t observe nonsense traditions descending from intellect and culture, it couldn’t be actual morality. The animals must be responding to instinct. But, humans instinctively help their children and the instinctiveness of it makes it no less moral. And the lack of ability to reason out morality doesn’t mean that a 3 year old child won’t make moral choice.
We could argue that all sentient beings deserve our respect. Perhaps that begs the question whether it is a good idea to put silly hats on your cat.
Sentience is the ability to feel, perceive, or be conscious, or to have subjective experiences. Eighteenth century philosophers used the concept to distinguish the ability to think ("reason") from the ability to feel ("sentience"). In modern western philosophy, sentience is the ability to have sensations or experiences (described by some thinkers as "qualia"). For Eastern philosophy, sentience is a metaphysical quality of all things that requires respect and care. The concept is central to the philosophy of animal rights, because sentience is necessary for the ability to suffer, which is held to entail certain rights.
My experience in hiring explained some of my struggle in search of empathy. It was clear to me that people aren’t equal. Why? Is it taught or is it inherited? The heritability of empathy is apparent in “twin studies” which explore the correlation of traits in people that are highly similar genetically but dissimilar environmentally. Multiple studies have been done in the last 50 years that demonstrate a moderate to highly correlated relationship to genetics. Interestingly, some of the studies suggest that emotional empathy (more akin to sympathy) is more strongly heritable that analytic empathy. This all suggests that empathy as a “talent” is hard wired. That does not mean that it cannot be enhanced. The brain is plastic. There is capacity for new wiring. It also does not mean that the “untalented” should be allowed to ignore empathy as a factor in therapeutic relationships. Empathy is necessary to more healthful outcomes. It suggests to me that a measure of each persons empathic ability would be a logical start point. That would provide direction in helping practitioners be more successful in the relationships that they need to build with patients. Further, should empathy training be available to all?
I had a general dental practice for 25 years. As with any small business, you must hire employees to make the business function. The success is very much dependent upon the employees. Selecting excellent employees became increasingly important to the extent that I certified as an interviewer with SRI Gallup. Within that interview, I found that the critical characteristic that I was looking for was empathy. It told me that as a population, we are very unevenly endowed with empathy. I came to highly prize anyone who interviewed as being highly empathetic. When I found and was able to hire, that truly made a difference in the interactions with patients. The obvious question...was it possible to develop empathy. The answer I found was that if people had "functional" empathy (neither low nor high), they could develop. If they were low, I couldn't change that. It did not mean that low empathy people would be poor employees. A position with lower client contact could be fine within my practice. They just needed to understand that there were situations that demanded high empathy.
Is empathy gained by nature or nurture? Evidently both.
I read the book, Callings by Gregg Levoy, a few years ago. He posits that God communicates with us all the time but we just don't pay attention. I try to pay attention, at least some of the time. Lately, I have been bumping into the word schadenfreude. It was first in the context of the election, regarding how Democrats were experiencing schadenfreude when they found themselves with so many wins against Republicans.
Schadenfreude is defined as pleasure derived from the misfortune or pain of others. It can be directed towards persons that have success that make you feel inferior. For example, the fascination with Tiger Woods fall from grace or even General Petraeus' unfortunate circumstance. It could also be directed at someone who has wronged you in some way.
It occurs to me that schadenfreude is practicing the diametric opposition of compassion. It implies an understanding of the other persons feelings (empathy) but instead of sympathizing, there is reveling in the negative emotion of the other. To push this farther, doing this diminishes compassion.
I don't want to engage in that.
It reminds me of the importance of self reflection.
Hurricane Sandy caused a lot of pain and loss in New York City. I used to live in Brooklyn and I have been to many of the places that were hard hit. People have experienced great loss. No heat, no power, no food for extended periods. I keep hearing about people that have gone there to help. Many are pure volunteers. There was a recent news story of a Chicagoan and his friends that drove to Howard Beach with a grill, hot dogs, and hamburgers. They set up and cooked hot dogs and burgers for several days. As fast as they could, as many as they could. They fed hot meals to people for free. His empathy was engaged when he heard the story, his sympathy was engaged when he imagined himself in that situation, his compassion was engaged and he took action.
These stories are recounted as humanity is at its best. It starts with empathy.
I was listening to the CBC today on the radio (yes, the Canadian broadcasting folks), dissecting the election of their neighbor to the south. They had three esteemed journalists trying to explain what happened. What struck me is that the analysis of stated uncommitted voters showed that they decided not on issues but on who they believed understood them best. Who had empathy for them. This election can be explained in many ways but that was the simplest explanation for me. In science, the simplest, clearest explanation of phenomena is usually the best. Barack Obama won these voters by a wide margin. I am sure we will learn more in the weeks and months to come, but that makes sense to me.
Also, I have empathy for young Abby in the viral video who sobbing said, "I am tired of Bronco Bama and Mit Romney." Me too.