Wednesday, January 13, 2021

13 - Empathy

Let's feel together: EMPATHY

1 – Visual example of empathy in action

  You can show empathy in different ways, but as always when being with other humans, your behavior and your social actions speak louder and clearer than words.

2 – Two flashlights on empathy 

  • Mankind's true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals. And in this respect mankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it. 
Milan Kundera 
The Unbearable Lightness of Being 

  • In a divided world, empathy is not the solution, it is the problem; a source of prejudice, not kindness. 
Paul Bloom 
Against empathy 

3 – Two questions
  • How does empathy help you in your life? 
  • What seems to be the main skill for to be an empathetic person?
Yo soy un hombre sincero 
De donde crece la palma 
Yo soy un hombre sincero 
De donde crece la palma 
Y antes de morirme quiero 
Echar mis versos del alma 

 4 – Empathy in language games 

 There is no concrete, one-sided definition for the feelings I describe in this blog, since humans use concepts like “empathy”, “love”, “happiness” and others primarily to reduce an all too complex reality to something managable when communicating with others. Each of these large concepts englobe different forms of behavior, they include a grand variety of feelings, desires and thoughts, but we only use one word to describe each of these multifaceted behaviors and actions. 

For example, we use “empathy” to designate the ability of one person to perceive the feelings and/or thoughts of another person, to experience the world as somebody else does, and to see the situation from their point of view. We say it’s like “walking in their shoes” or like understanding their map of reality. 

“Empathy” as a theme for books and TED-presentations has become very fashionable in the last decade, something similar to “Mindfulness”, “Emotional Intelligence” and other concepts laid out in thousands of books, which describe their advantages and uses in everday social life. Putting these concepts into practice means that we treat others and ourselves in a kinder way, and in the end everybody will or should be happier 

Rule of thumb # 15

Perfect humans and happy endings in books and movies
 may have little or no relation to real life! 

Acting with empathy can go from mirroring the feelings of another person to being kind, attentive and/or just listening to somebody. 

5 – When do we need it? 

Empathy is the feeling we need to care for our offsprings, during their first days, months and years in the outside world, when the little ones communicate via smiles and crying, to tell you that you have to do something for them, that you have to act on their behalf. As a caretaker for very young humans you have to guess-empathize their needs, since they depend completely on the interpretative (empathetic) skills and care of their caregivers. 

Another important side of having and using empathetic skills is the fact, that most part of human history consists mainly of working and living together with other animals of your species, so you need empathy for establishing relations and working together with other people. Good working or love relationships include understanding another person’s point of view and behaving accordingly. Without a minimum of empathy most relationships and work teams just break up after a while. 

As said before, working and living together with others requires empathy, what psychologists also call a “Theory of Mind”, that means knowing that other people have a mind of their own and adapting to the motivations and mental states of others, and being able to control one’s own emotions and respond strategically to different situations and people. 

6 – Evolutionary aspects 

In general, humans are made by evolution in a way that they feel greater empathy for people who are like themselves and they feel a lot less empathy for strangers (if at all!). Since humans are social animals who need others to survive and thrive, they have naturally evolved to be cooperative and empathic. To live with and depend on others, to raise and educate the young we need empathy, which we even can use strategically to serve our selfish inner drives (according to some evolutionary biologists, we always act selfishly, even when we think and pretend that we act altruistically!). 

Empathy is turned on by events within our own social group, but it easily vanishes with regard to outsiders or members of other groups, who may easily become our enemies that we fight against without mercy. Human empathy is triggered in ways that are consistent with our nearest and strongest social relationships, that means we are most empathetic with the people we know best, our family, group, tribe, etc. 

A group of Italien neuro-scientists at the University of Parma discoverd in 1994 that monkeys have unique brain cells (neurons) that are triggered by doing something themselves and also by only watching other monkies doing it. These brain cells were called “mirror neurons”, as they cause the phenomen of "monkey sees, monkey does", which is learning and acting by observing and imitating, the same process of how most of humans learn.

For some scientists the existence of mirror neurons could be the proof of a neurological basis for empathy, whereas others are not even sure whether mirror neurons really exist. 

7 – Empathy is useful for 
  • To establish rapport with another person. 
  • To understand what another person is feeling. 
  • To connect emotionally with others. 
  • To be pacient and kind with other abled (“NeuroDivergent”) people. 
  • To reach outwards to others. 
  • To feel good about yourself. 
  • To get overwhelmed by the feelings of others. 
  • To reach an empathy burnout and get numbed all over. 
  • Not setting clear boundaries to other people and feeling bad when your boundaries are crossed without permission. 
  • To get ripped off by a sociopath without realizing it or realizing it much too late. 
  • Others: … 

8 – Forms of empathy 

Cognitive empathy: Is basically the skill of “perspective taking”, of recognizing and responding well to the feelings and motivations of others. 

Emotional or Affective empathy: refers to our feelings and thoughts which we get when we capture the emotions of others. For some people that can be so strong that they suffer in their own body-mind the emotional pain of others. 

Compassionate empathy: is about the fact that you feel the suffering of someone and you take action to help him or her. feeling someone's suffering and taking action to help. You take action in the real world to alliviate the pain of somebody else. 

Somatic empathy: is like experiencing the pain of someone else. If you see an accident with injured people, you may feel physical pain too. 

Spiritual empathy: for some people in the eastern philosophical tradition it is part of 'enlightenment' and you should reach this state with and through meditation, 12 hours a day, each day of the year. 

The Heart Sutra:
Gone, gone, gone to the other shore; 
Gone completely to the other shore. 

9 – Shadow side of empathy

Emotional Burnout: feeling too much and too long the emotional pains of others. The more sensitive you are, the more you feel the pain and suffering of others, the faster you may reach the burnout state and a depression, which are not exactly states of wine and roses.

If you are too kind (empathic) in real life there is a high probability that you don ‘t like conflicts and you don’t know how to set and defend personal boundaries. That’s all too nice for other people, but not everybody will respect your boundaries if you don’t do it yourself and some people may take advantage of your undefended “niceness”. 

Psychologists call an extremely kind behaviour “altruistic surrender”, that is when you internalize the values of another person and you live according to his or her wishes. You avoid to decide for yourself and you live the life according to the decisions of somebody else, something the existentialist philosophers would say that you are living an unauthentic life. That happens when we abandon our own ambitions and replaces them with someone else’s. 

I repeat: Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes can be beneficial, but when it becomes your default mode of relating to others, it can blind you to your own needs and it makes you vulnerable to those who may take advantage of you. 

10 – How to increase your empathy sprayer

Depends how much you have and use already, where you live and with what kind of people you have to work with. Like everything else in life, empathy depends on context (concrete situation and people present) and timing (what in one moment is good can be bad in another moment). 

Some concrete actions to demonstrate your empathetic skills:
  • Listen and speak to and with others. 
  • Observe their body language. 
  • Stay emotinally attuned to her/him. 
  • Start getting a complete “Theory of Mind”. 
  • Meditate with visualizations of loving kindness towards others (but then again, not all humans should receive your love!) 
  • Be aware of your own sensations and emotions! 
  • If appropriate, say or do something kind to and for the other person. 

11 – Somewhere around two and a half examples of empathy in literature and/or real life 

  • One month before Mama turned fifty-nine and two months before Jan van Hooff’s eightieth birthday, these two elderly hominids had an emotional reunion. Mama, emaciated and near death, was among the world’s oldest zoo chimpanzees. Jan, with his white hair standing out against a bright red rain jacket, is the biology professor who supervised my dissertation long ago. 
  • The two of them had known each other for over forty years. Curled up in a fetal position in her straw nest, Mama doesn’t even look up when Jan, who has boldly entered her night cage, approaches with a few friendly grunts. Those of us who work with apes often mimic their typical sounds and gestures: soft grunts are reassuring. 
  • When Mama finally does wake up from her slumber, it takes her a second to realize what is going on. But then she expresses immense joy at seeing Jan up close and in the flesh. Her face changes into an ecstatic grin, a much more expansive one than is typical of our species. The lips of chimpanzees are incredibly flexible and can be flipped inside out, so that we see not only Mama’s teeth and gums but also the inside of her lips. 
  • Half of Mama’s face is a huge smile while she yelps—a soft, high-pitched sound for moments of high emotion. In this case, the emotion is clearly positive, because she reaches for Jan’s head while he bends down. 
  • She gently strokes his hair, then drapes one of her long arms around his neck to pull him closer. During this embrace, her fingers rhythmically pat the back of his head and neck in a comforting gesture that chimpanzees also use to quiet a whimpering infant. 
  • This was typically Mama: she must have sensed Jan’s trepidation about invading her domain, and she was letting him know not to worry. She was happy to see him. 
Frans de Waal 
Mama's Last Hug 

The goodbye for good of two elderly hominids. 

  •  …like hitchhiking across the country—seemed like a decent substitute. That’s how I wound up outside Gillette, Wyoming, one morning in late October 1986, with my pack leaned against the guardrail and an interstate map in my back pocket. … 
  • In my pack I had a tent and sleeping bag, a set of aluminum cookpots, and a Swedish-made camping stove that ran on gasoline and had to be pressurized with a thumb pump. That and a week’s worth of food was all I had with me outside Gillette, Wyoming, that morning, when I saw a man walking toward me up the on-ramp from town. 
  • From a distance I could see that he wore a quilted old canvas union suit and carried a black lunch box. I took my hands out of my pockets and turned to face him. He walked up and stood there studying me. His hair was wild and matted and his union suit was shiny with filth and grease at the thighs. He didn’t look unkindly but I was young and alone and I watched him like a hawk. He asked me where I was headed. 
  • “California,” I said. He nodded. 
  • “How much food do you got?” he asked. 
  • I thought about this. I had plenty of food—along with all the rest of my gear—and he obviously didn’t have much. I’d give food to anyone who said he was hungry, but I didn’t want to get robbed, and that’s what seemed was about to happen. 
  • “Oh, I just got a little cheese,” I lied. I stood there, ready, but he just shook his head. 
  • “You can’t get to California on just a little cheese,” he said. “You need more than that.” 
  • The man said that he lived in a broken-down car and that every morning he walked three miles to a coal mine outside of town to see if they needed fill-in work. Some days they did, some days they didn’t, and this was one of the days that they didn’t. 
  • “So I won’t be needing this,” he said, opening his black lunch box. “I saw you from town and just wanted to make sure you were okay.” 
  • The lunch box contained a bologna sandwich, an apple, and a bag of potato chips. The food had probably come from a local church. I had no choice but to take it. I thanked him and put the food in my pack for later and wished him luck. Then he turned and made his way back down the on-ramp toward Gillette
  • I thought about that man for the rest of my trip. I thought about him for the rest of my life. … 
Sebastian Junger 
Tribe: … 

  • he made the relationship of Self with Other the foundation of his entire philosophy – as central a concept for him as Being was for Heidegger. 
  • He once said that this shift in thinking had its origin in an experience he had in the camp. Like the other prisoners, he had got used to the guards treating them without respect as they worked, as if they were inhuman objects unworthy of fellow feeling. But each evening, as they were marched back behind the barbed-wire fence again, his work group would be greeted by a stray dog who had somehow found its way inside the camp. The dog would bark and fling itself around with delight at seeing them, as dogs do. Through the dog’s adoring eyes, the men were reminded each day of what it meant to be acknowledged by another being – to receive the basic recognition that one living creature grants to another. 
Sarah Bakewell 
At The Existentialist Café 

12 - Coda 
  • Interpretation: I feel (more or less) what you are feeling! 
  • Mission: Rapport and collaboration with others. 
  • Duration: Depends on context and people involved.
  • Shadow: Emotional burnout. 
  • Force: Bonding with. others. 
  • Energy level: medium. 
 Humming chorus


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