We humans are preeminently social animal. Over thousands of years ago, our ancestors developed complex systems of grouping together as a community to improve their quality of life. During this process, their neurological make-up adapted. They evolved “mirror neurons“, which were more refined and sensitive than those of other primates. On a less refined level, these neurons assist us in mimicking behaviour (excl. genetic implications). However, the art of imitation is more than mere mimicry. “Monkey see, monkey do” will only get us so far in life. Anything further requires understanding of the mind as well as anticipation of its content in order to cultivate a seeminly genuine imitation.
In other words, what began as preverbal communication grew into something more sophisticated to allow for advanced degrees of cooperation. To hone our skills, we needed to refine our ability to detect what people are thinking and feeling. Before our reasoning powers fully unfold this way, even the most sentient beings can’t take their ability to empathise to the next level. In essence, they struggle to see patterns in peoples behavior as well as deduce peoples inner motivations, which will invariably make them appear to be socially insensitive or even callous.
Why We Possess Empathy
Compared to other animals, we remain relatively helpless for many years before we can truly operate on our own. This extended period of immaturity, lasting approx. 12-18 years, serves a valuable function. It encourages us to focus on developing by far the most important weapon in the human arsenal: our brain.
Yet, this prolonged period of dependency can build on negative but also positive tendencies. When our survival depends on the adaptability and reliability of our caregivers, we either learn to behave in ways to meet our needs or we will lack them. Although it would fill most children with unbearable anxiety to think of their parents as fallible, some don’t have a choice. They must grow up fast, so their world-understanding and sense of empathy grow accordingly.
While our capacity to understand others is still developing, we initially perceive our parents as stronger, wiser and more altruistic than they are in reality. This is due to the fact that we view their actions through the lens of our needs, and so they become an extension of ourselves. We project what we want and need to see onto those in charge of our care. Our perception of people becomes saturated with various emotions, such as love, need, sorrow or anger. Then inevitably, in
adolescence, we get a closer glimpse at the dark side of the human condition.
Empathy is the process of focusing our attention outward instead of inward, honing the observational and empathic skills that we naturally possess. It means moving past our tendency to idealise or judge…to simply see them for who they are and accept them. It is a school of thought, which must be cultivated as early as possible.
For example, in the case of Benjamin Franklin, known for his social intelligence. As the second youngest of a large extended family, he learned to get his way through charm. As he got older he came to believe, as many young people do, that getting along with others is a function of behaving charmingly and winning them over with a friendly manner. Yet, the more he interacted with the real world, the more began to see his charm as the actual source of his problem. Being charming was a strategy he had developed out of need. It was a reflection of his narcissism, of the love he had of his own words and wit. It had no relation to other people and their needs. It did not prevent them from exploiting or attacking him. To be truly charming and socially effective you have to understand people, and to understand them you have to get outside yourself and immerse your mind in their world. Only when he realized how deeply naive he had been could he take the necessary steps to move past this naiveté.
When we use empathy as a form of tactical maneuver to sway opinions, we aren’t displaying genuine care or interest in another person…
We have all reached the point of nearly tearing our hair out, when we were talking to someone who was just not listening. Even if we try to convey important information in a manner, which the person is supposed to relate to…but they just don’t give a fuck. This is not what I’m talking about. Each one of us has days, when we can’t be bothered to listen either because we are preoccupied, distracted, drained or for other reasons. There are degrees of listening. Nobody can listen 100% all the time. There is something far worse than a bad day…making a life of empathising as a means to an end. In truth, most of us have done that, when we can’t muster the genuine emotions required to get what we need to get through the day. For example, if we wanna see an action film instead of a chick flick, but he doesn’t want to.
It depends on how often we do this that makes us who we are. If we care too much, we give away so much energy to the problems of other people that we may burn out in the process. On the other hand, when we give too little, we drain energy reserves, which aren’t ours to deplete. Everything in moderation. These are the concerns of the average person, but when relating becomes tactical, empathy becomes exploitation. We witness this on a daily basis through the social imbalance of power, we come into contact with… However, we don’t expect to accept it from our friends or loved ones, even though it is commonplace. Some pass off the small white lies as a kindness, others mascarade an emptiness devoid of conscience to variant degrees. There’s a difference between a having conscience and acting on it. We can either act in accordance with our own ethical code or we can have the capacity to feel remorse. The latter usually negates the need for the former.
Where Does Real Empathy Get Us?
We all know the type of person, who spends day after day working an angle. They may use a pretty smile or kind word to their advantage, but it is a strategic attempt to achieve a very specific goal. They may care or may not care about the people, they are essentially faking almost every interaction with…but does it matter? During the act, they definitely care, just to varying degrees. However, the closer we get to reaching our goal, the less we tend to care. It is no secret that we aren’t saints, but we are often less considerate than we could be. We are prone to caring less than we pretend to. Also we are less likely to accept rejection gracefully, when we need the answer to be “yes”.
This is not the same as the desire for those interactions to be real. When we do the right thing, hoping the feeling behind them will surface eventually, we are in fact fighting our selfish impulses (sometimes genetically active traits). It is another level entirely to commit the most intimate betrayals, only to know what we are supposed to feel but don’t…If we know the damage we are leaving in our wake and simply just carry on to satisfy our own needs, then we ultimately face a worse fate.
In the end, we are all assholes on occasion, no matter how hard we try to be kind at all times…to never say no. Nobody can devote their complete attention to a person at all times, even stalkers eventually snap in the attempt. However, to truly love another as a colleague, friend or relative, we must be consistently committed and involved in fulfilling their highest potential. At times, this means just being physically present without showing any kind of judgement while they pour their heart out. Other times, it may imply tough love. To say, “No” when we are being taken advantage of by someone whose growth we care about. In truth, we always know so little or feel so much about each other as people that we fail to seize the opportunity.