empathy


Jody Gomez

Recommended Posts

Barbara Branden on Ayn in The Passion of Ayn Rand-

As the child worshipped joy, so did the adult she would become. Forever after, she believed that pain and frustration and suffering were meaningless aberrations, never a normal part of life, never to be accepted as the inevitable nature of human existence--and never to be considered important.

Pain and frustration and suffering are aberrations, but how do we handle the metaphysical reality of those aberrations? To those who suffer them, they are certainly not meaningless, and they are an omnipresent part of life. Four years ago, my ex-wife(we're still best of friends) learned that she had breast cancer and underwent chemo and a radical mastectomy. All of this at the ripe old age of 30. Pain, frustration and suffering have understandably affected her life. She is a statistical aberration, yet she exists as such. Her pain and suffering can't be denied through the statistical averages. Ayn denigrated the literature that presented the statistical average, but seems to have had an affinity for the statistical average in certain aspects of life.

I'm sussing out my ideas here, so bear with me. I suppose my question is thus: how do we as objectivists brush aside the "aberrations"? Though an aberration, when reality steals our youth and our joys, how do we address it? Is empathy such a bad word?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Jody,

I have probably been guilty of interpreting Rand beyond her meaning over the years on this point, but I have always understood Rand's rejection of pain and frustration and suffering, and her calling it metaphysically unimportant (even arriving at aberration), as meaning that they were never to be desired as goals or states in themselves. One strives for happiness. One does not strive for suffering.

Obviously these elements are very important parts of our biological make-up and there are times when we are overwhelmed by them.

(More coming later about all this...)

Michael

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Jody, you raise a very interesting issue. In one sense, I admire Rand for the attitude toward pain that you quoted, but I am also aware of the psychological damage that can potentially result from it – depending on exactly what one means by holding that pain and frustration and suffering are meaningless aberrations.

I believe that Rand’s attitude toward pain came, originally, from her Russian background, from her perception of what she called “the Russian soul.” She saw all around her, and in many of the books she was expected to admire, a kind of deification of pain, the view that it is pain that makes one’s life meaningful and important. If I suffer more than you do, that proves I’m a superior person, that I am “deep” and I understand the tragedy that is human life. According to this perspective, pain is not merely a part of life, it is the essence of life.

I agree with Rand that pain should not be accepted as the nature of human existence, but certainly it is part of human existence – a part that no one is likely to escape. And often it can be an important teacher, telling us the psychological and emotional importance of lost or threatened values. We have all heard people say: “I didn’t fully know how much my friend or my lover meant to me until I lost him– and, equally, we can discover that we didn’t know how little our friend or lover meant to us until we lost him. Or, we can learn to cherish our lives in a new and deeper way when, like your ex-wife, Jody, we face the possibility of death.

The term “aberration” is the weasel word in the equation. By denying that pain can be meaningful, we run the risk of denying its reality in our lives, of telling ourselves we should not feel it, that it is somehow unworthy, and ultimately of telling ourselves we do not feel it. We run the risk of accepting the opposite of what Ayn saw in the Russian soul. I’ve seen this is many Objectivists over the years, the pretense that they are leading blissful lives (or would be except for the fact they are a rare and beleaugered voice of reason in an irrational world) -- the pretense that they are contemptuous of pain – and the inevitable repression of their authentic feelings that alone makes this pretense possible:

Jody, you said “Is empathy such a bad word?” My dictionary defines it as the ability to vicariously experience the thoughts or feelings or attitudes of someone else. It is a very good word indeed, The extent to which we are incapable of empathy is the extent to which we are less than human. The inability to experience it is the mark of the psychopath, the serial killer, the dictator. A chilling example in recent headlines is the case of the pedophile who kidnapped a nine year old girl, sexually assaulted her for three days, then buried her alive. If we shudder in horror at the thought of what that child suffered during those nightmare days, it is precisely because we are capable of empathy. Her molester did not shudder.

I have never known anyone who I thought was totally incapable of empathy, but I have known two or three people who lacked it to a significant degree. These people seemed to me to be capable of almost any crime or sin – and to be held back from truly vicious actions not because of an empathic awareness of what their victims would endure, but only because they feared being caught and punished.

Barbara

Link to comment
Share on other sites

In regard to empathy, there are many people who may not have as much empathy as oneself who are normal, attractive, well-adjusted human beings. There are other people who may have so much empathy that they lack a strong sense of self and can hardly function. In fact, that can be a false empathy, in which one only imagines he or she is being empathic. Not to mention phoney empathizers, usually politicians, who keep proposing new social welfare legislation.

--Brant

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I think the first time I saw it was over on Nathaniel's Yahoo forum...evolutionary psychology. They had identified a "component" (biological component) that evokes empathy, they said it was visually cued (mirroring, or something).

In any event, I feel it. Here in East Cleveland (one of the shit-holes of the U.S.), it gets surreal because you have to draw from it so much.

If you walk around here, everyone will ask you for a cigarette or some change. After awhile, even if you have sworn to never give anyone anything, it looks different to some of us. The thing is, if a guy asks me for a smoke or some quarters, 90% of the time I will not. That's not what is interesting--what is interesting is the times I actually do it, and why. It's like I just feel it. I'm sure I'm wrong more than once, but on the whole, I'm happy with what few times I give these people something.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Rich,

You just triggered a memory of an experience I had years ago. Toronto is pretty much the same in that it has its share of panhandlers and beggars who are in perpetual mode of extended hand asking for spare change or a cigarette. Usually, my reflective response when I am approached is an indifferent “sorry bud” and I would then move on about my business. (But not before muttering under my breath “get a job” and then the incident would evaporate from memory).

But there was this one occasion when someone approached me asking for change, and who—for whatever reason—struck the empathy cord in me! This guy was like Oliver Twist asking for a second serving. There was something strangely sincere about this person’s request. The tone did not carry an assumptive ring—as if it were my natural duty to provide any change—but rather, it was recognized that charity from me was entirely optional and of my own choice. Instead of handing this guy some small change, I took him to a restaurant and bought him a full meal. That was the first and last time I have ever done anything like that.

-Victor

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Rich,

You just triggered a memory of an experience I had years ago. Toronto is pretty much the same in that it has its share of panhandlers and beggars who are in perpetual mode of extended hand asking for spare change or a cigarette. Usually, my reflective response when I am approached is an indifferent “sorry bud” and I would then move on about my business. (But not before muttering under my breath “get a job” and then the incident would evaporate from memory).

But there was this one occasion when someone approached me asking for change, and who—for whatever reason—struck the empathy cord in me! This guy was like Oliver Twist asking for a second serving. There was something strangely sincere about this person’s request. The tone did not carry an assumptive ring—as if it were my natural duty to provide any change—but rather, it was recognized that charity from me was entirely optional and of my own choice. Instead of handing this guy some small change, I took him to a restaurant and bought him a full meal. That was the first and last time I have ever done anything like that.

-Victor

35 years ago a young man asked me for some money in the Port Authority Bus Terminal in NYC saying he needed it for fare home. I gave him a buck. Less than a year later the NY Times ran a story about panhandlers in the Terminal. One guy they interviewed said he had needed fare and the guy he asked gave him a buck so he took up begging! :(

--Brant

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I'm sussing out my ideas here, so bear with me. I suppose my question is thus: how do we as objectivists brush aside the "aberrations"? Though an aberration, when reality steals our youth and our joys, how do we address it? Is empathy such a bad word?

Rand herself said in one of her essays something to the effect that if we are feeling joyous ourselves, it would be appropriate not to make a display of it in the presence of a friend or acquaintance who was undergoing an ordeal or hardship at the time so as not to make that person feel worse by the contrast between his/her situation and your own. Sounds like an exercise in empathy to me.

One of my objections to the actions of characters in her writing is that they feel they have to hide pain from one another and from themselves. Since when is refusing to acknowledge reality -- of any kind -- a virtue? Since when is messing with one's own perceptions, whether they be emotions, senses, whatever -- a good thing?

Judith

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Jody,

I have probably been guilty of interpreting Rand beyond her meaning over the years on this point, but I have always understood Rand's rejection of pain and frustration and suffering, and her calling it metaphysically unimportant (even arriving at aberration), as meaning that they were never to be desired as goals or states in themselves. One strives for happiness. One does not strive for suffering.

Obviously these elements are very important parts of our biological make-up and there are times when we are overwhelmed by them.

(More coming later about all this...)

Michael

Michael-Though it seemed I was interpreting Rand beyond her meaning(and perhaps I was), I was also taking to task an attitude in certain circles of objectivism that acts as the proverbial ostrich. I agree with you completely that one strives for happiness. I hope no one here takes my statements to mean the opposite(and I don't think anyone has.) I suppose my point of contention with Rand is that nothing that is a part of reality is unimportant. Many things that are metaphysically given are certainly not to be desired, or held as the norm, but existence exists, and those realities can't be swept under the rug. One would be wrong to portray pain as the natural state of humanity, but one would be equally wrong in vitiating the true pain that another is suffering, and the bleakness that they are encountering(providing is was not a self-induced pain.)

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Archived

This topic is now archived and is closed to further replies.