Tuesday, March 11, 2014

If I hurt you and I don't think about it... is that a lack of empathy?

Last night, I woke up in the middle of the night and both of my arms were asleep. As the feeling slowly came back, I thought about how vulnerable I felt (as a person without the use of her arms). It led me to thoughts about those people who cause hurt, doing so when others are at their most vulnerable.

I wonder if I could have empathy for such a person.

How does a person hurt someone else, and then justify their actions to themselves or to others? Are they simply unable to feel empathy? Some have said* that when an attacker hurts other people, they are choosing to 'turn off' their empathy, as I would take off a raincoat, and go without.

I read an article recently, which was a study of aggressive activity done by men in bars. The article implied, to me, that the person doing the act of aggression is doing so because they think they can 'get away with it'. They believe that nobody will stop them.


I admit I've done some minor bad things.... I've crossed the street not obeying the traffic signals. What New Yorker hasn't? I've tossed a piece of garbage off a ledge (a boat, a cliff, a balcony of a 10th floor apartment). I've taken a piece of tasty looking food from the office 'fridge, without asking permission from the owner.

In all of those small cases, I know I'm doing something that's supposed to be wrong. However, I also know that at the time I'm doing those things, there doesn't seem to be any immediate way for me to be caught at it. As a result, I'm tempted. I think about it, I consider it. I could just do it, right? Nobody would see. It's just a piece of cake. Snatch!

I believe that just because I don't have second thoughts in all situations doesn't mean I lack empathy. It just means that I'm not good at bringing up 'second thoughts' in every situation.


I can't imagine what goes through someone's mind when they are hurting another person. Intentionally. Willfully. However I do think that I can empathize** with a person who is doing something wrong, just because they think they can get away with it. Perhaps they just don't get to those all-important second thoughts.


*My apologies if I'm oversimplifying Simon Baron-Cohen's writings with this reference. His book, and his writings are in reference not just to those who commit so called 'evil acts' but also to those who simply step outside of the acceptable social world we live in. He's touched on this topic in great detail - I suggest checking out his book if you are so inclined. 

**Note that I'm saying 'empathize' here and not 'forgive'. 


susan thom said...

i have noticed that those who show know empathy, have absolutely no, or little, self esteem or self confidence in themselves. they are hurt by things people may say that are in no way meant to be demeaning, but are taken as such because a person with little self confidence is hurt very easily.
they misinterpret "hey, i see you put on a few pounds" for "man, you got really fat!"
this hurts their feelings, and they react in negative ways. to them, someone has totally disintegrated their being.
they have taken away what little satisfaction one has accumulated in themselves over the years.
i would personally just say, "yeah, i've been going to a lot of take outs these last few weeks."
empathy takes thought. the way we say things is important, especially to those who have such a lack of self esteem within themselves, and take words in the wrong context. but was the person who said the words being empathetic?
if we are all responsible for our own thoughts, actions, and reactions, we can brush aside people who seem to lack empathy, but without a strong sense of ourselves, empathy is important.

Janet said...

Thanks Sue! If I'm understanding you correctly, I think you are talking about people hurting each other with words, by saying things that they don't intend to be hurtful. However, if the person receiving the words has low self-esteem, they may take what you are saying in the wrong way, and be hurt by it.

If that's what you are saying then I agree, that would be kind of an unintentional hurting. Similar to me accidentally knocking someone over, if I don't see them.

I think we can't pretend to know how everyone will react to our words and actions. We can't know what someone else is really thinking or feeling.

In my story, I'm talking about intentional hurting. Injuring someone, with full knowledge that I'm doing so. In your story, that would be me saying "man, you got really fat!" to a person. I think that saying things like that is what happens when we don't stop to have those 'second thoughts'.

What do you think?


SL said...

persons who do great evil have a hurt within themselves; and doing the evil makes them hurt even more. I'm reminded of a story from the Holocaust

Guard sees a Jew giving a prayer of thanks to G-d. "What do you have to thank G-d for?" the guard asks.
the inmate responds "I'm grateful I'm not you".

Janet said...

Thanks SL!

When you say 'have a hurt within themselves' are you saying that they are injured in some way? And that they are injuring themselves further when they do more hurt?

If that's true - if they are injured, then can you connect with their pain and suffering?

SL said...

an emotional pain within, and yes. Gandalf said you should leave such a person to themselves, in the hope that they could find their own cure. But we live in a small crowded world. I don't think we have places to exile people any more. If we can't afford to lock 'em up and throw away the key, then people who do great evil should be put down.

People who negotiate with criminals have to have empathy for them. It is a job requirement.

What crimes? murder, large scale fraud. It is hard for me to understand how bankers and investment professionals go unpunished for willful evil.

Janet said...

Thanks for keeping up, SL!

I'm not following your thoughts here - it sounds like you are saying they should be punished for their wrongdoings.

What does that have to do with empathizing with them? I'm not talking about punishment. I'm talking about connection.

Or - perhaps you are saying that those who do wrong should be punished by not allowing anyone to connect with them?

SL said...

not allowing them to continue connecting with fellow human beings and doing more harm.

Janet said...

SL, I understand you. I don't agree.

susan thom said...

one of the things i have learned in adulthood, is to think before i speak. "pass the salt" and "could you please pass the salt?" mean two different things to people.
one sounds antagonistic, and the other sounds friendly.
i try to keep antagonism out of my vocabulary.
doesn't always happen, but i try, and i always see positive results when i do.
we never know what another is going through, so it's to all of our best interests, i believe, to try and be kind, even to the ones who are not kind to us. until we've walked in someone else's shoes, we should tread lightly.
peace is the results, and that's always better than war.

Janet said...

Thanks Sue!