Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Limits of Empathy

When tragedy hits another, someone you’ve never met and never will meet, what is your response?

Very few people will brush off the news without even a second thought. Even fewer (probably none) will feel the pain like someone who was directly affected. But between these two extremes, what is your reaction, and what do you believe the proper reaction should be? Is it correct to feel pain, and if so, to what extent? Should one encourage feelings of pain and sadness, or try to dispel them?

There are, as I see it, pros and cons to each side. One might argue that you should encourage and experience sensations of grief: this is empathy, feeling for someone else, a compassionate human quality. When you suffer, I suffer, because we are all intrinsically connected.

However, on the other side, if I allow myself to grieve, if I dwell on the tragedy, cry, and feel pain, where do I draw the line? At what point do I distract myself from these thoughts, or allow myself to be distracted? At what point does my grief for people unknown become excessive, detracting from my ability to do other things, to be productive, to live my own life? Is it really right for me to be sad and depressed, even for just a number of hours, because of something that didn’t happen to me, and that only hurts me because I allow it to?

23 comments:

G said...

Very few people will brush off the news without even a second thought.

--You have a much higher opinion of people than i do. Don't lose that.

Erachet said...

I sort of see it as being sad for the person, but not being sad yourself. At least for me, I would feel sadness and grief, but not for the tragedy that happened, rather for the people effected by that tragedy. Since I am not directly effected, I wouldn't let it interfere with my daily life. I would not sit and dwell and mourn over something that happened to someone else, but I would definitely feel compassion and empathy for that person.

I would find it weird for someone to take someone else's tragedy and make it their own by crying and lamenting and feeling the grief so much that it's as if the tragedy happened to you. Something about that just feels strange to me and I'm pretty sure we're not supposed to be doing that, but I don't really know.

Anonymous said...

I'm wondering if practicality is the key. What action provides the most immediate benefit to yourself and others. I think that distracting yourself from the present moment, a moment in which you would be capable of doing good for those around you, in order to greive is counterproductive. Live now, contemplate now, help now...

the apple said...

I'm a believer in not shutting yourself off from feeling sad for other people.

I think you answered your own question, actually: when your grief for other people starts to impact your ability to be productive and to do things that you have to do, then it can probably be called excessive. Feeling paralyzed by grief for something that doesn't involve you or anyone you know can happen, but I think that past a certain point - i.e., because of that overwhelming sadness, you can't bring yourself to leave your room or do schoolwork or run errands - it's not healthy. Things work by degrees, though - the same way that mourning for someone is a staged process: shiva, shloshim, a year, etc, in order to help you move through an emotional trauma. I think it's okay to react strongly to something sad, even if you don't know any of the people involved, but that it's healthy to let feelings dissipate after a while, rather than letting them prevent you from functioning.

Does this answer your question at all, or am I just echoing the post?

Mindy said...

I agree with Apple- it's something that I;ve thought about and I think that is the key. Not allowing it to hamper and destroy your life- just as in our own personal grief we do not do so.

SJ said...

As indicated in the post, I assume that reactions of either extreme (brushing it off entirely or grieving as if the tragedy was your own) are not the appropriate ones. The question I want to explore is within that gray area. Assuming that upon hearing the news, you feel immediate pain, but that, since you do not know anyone involved, you would easily be able to distract yourself and think about other things instead—how long is it appropriate to think about the tragedy?

Anon, I am inclined to agree with you: practicality is key. But if you will be more productive focusing on something else, then should you dismiss painful thoughts as soon as possible? Where do you cross the line between practical and callous? A related question: what is the purpose of empathy? Does it serve a practical function, or would it be best not to feel the pain at all if that will ensure maximum productivity?

SJ said...

Come on, people! Where is my interlocutor when I need one?

Anonymous said...

sj...I don't think that it's necessarily callous to accept loss without extended grieving...rather, if we grieve now for those affected by a distant event at the expense of grieving with or helping those individuals near to us, is the grieving in the former case not somewhat selfish? Every new moment is an opportunity to help people in a direct way...empathy can be used to help us recognize the immediate areas and people in need of our support...

We can use our grief as motivation to love and help those around us with more passion and understanding...

SJ said...

I don't think that it's necessarily callous to accept loss without extended grieving...

Without extended grieving, yes—but what about without any grieving at all?

After thinking about the issue further, and some off-the-blog discussion, the conclusion I've reached (for right now) is that empathy can be a good thing, but should not be taken too far. It is important to care about others--and also important not to let grieving interfere with that objective. There comes a point at which extended grief merely becomes selfish and not useful to anyone involved. When the grief will allow you to help somehow, whether by spurring you to action or to understand someone else, then it is positive, but if it’s just going to get in the way of life, you should rethink the emotion.

Also, there is a time and a place for grief, and the people around you must be taken into consideration. When you hear of a tragedy that affected strangers, it is worth pausing for a few moments to reflect, even for a few moments longer than your most basic instinct might impel you to--but then turn your attention back to the people and tasks immediately at hand. Later on, when alone or at a more opportune time, you can go back to it and think further--allow the grief to affect you, take the chance to feel for others, and to appreciate what you have. And then use that appreciation to attack your own life with renewed energy and vigor.

Anonymous said...

well put....

G said...

I think it important here to define "tragedy".

I.L. O’Cutor said...

Do we have such control over our emotions? Why ever feel pain, then? Just when it is convenient, efficient, productive? If so, there seems to be an underlying selfishness to this approach, as if there is a hierarchy of worthwhile or rightful pain—the further you are, bodily or spiritually, removed from the pain, the more you have to consider its validity, at least insomuch as it is felt by you—is that right? Do you really apply a different standard when you are directly attacked or hurt? If it interferes with a well-tuned life, does it matter if it is your tragedy, your friend’s tragedy, or the tragedy experienced by someone you’ve never met? According to the approach that we have control over our emotions, as you seem to be suggesting, shouldn’t all such sensations be evaluated with an equal yardstick? If anything, along these lines, I think most of us overindulge in our response to directly received pain, not external pain. Empathy, as you say, is the emotional manifestation of human connectedness. Somehow, my emotional distress when I read or hear about a random person’s pain attaches me to this world and to the people in it, despite the fact that I cannot feel the pain physically. The emotional pain we attach to our own experiences may be overkill; when we cannot participate in the experience directly, maybe the emotional pain is necessary. It may be inefficient at times to sit alone and cry about a tragedy that occurred far away or long ago but I think that it is healthier—braver—to face the immensity of this existence and recognize your own smallness than to wipe away your tears and do something industrious. Even if there are, theoretically, more productive ways for you to use your time, even if others might think you are being excessive. Because your tears won’t reverse the events that occurred and it is important sometimes to cry, I think, for this very fact alone. How often? Is that the question? As often as it is sincere, I would think. Tragedies can be used to distract us from reality and reality can be used to distract us from tragedies. I guess the general rule would be Avoid the Distractions, whether the source of the distraction is close to or distant from your self.

(But that all aside, if we’re already choosing emotions, I think someone once told me that happiness is a lot more enjoyable than sadness…)

SJ said...

More thoughts…

Can emotions be controlled? The Rav indicates that the Halachic Man sublimates his emotions to his intellect. I’ve only known one person who has been able to do this consistently in a very real way, and I found it a quality both to admire and to awe and frighten me a little. In my experience, emotions are not so easily dictated. Sometimes there is personal pain that is very real and does not go away. I can make the choice to try to live my life despite the pain, to go on, to be as productive as I can, to act, to create, to live—yet the pain is there, will be there, lurking in the corners, and it cannot help but affect me and everything about the way that I am and what I do. Then there is pain that is not mine, that I can choose to feel or not to feel—or at least I can control it more easily than the pain that is my own. This may be a failing, but often it is so. It is important, I think, to feel others’ pain, true, but to encourage that pain too much may not be wise—because at what point will my life become merely a collage of pain? While it is important to acknowledge the sadness of human experience, it is also important to accomplish what we can while we are here, and to feel happiness and joy in the blessings we are given. If I didn’t feel that pain at all it would be wrong, but as long as I can still tell that I am human, that I am connected, is it valid to push those feelings of grief farther than they naturally would go, just because I could do it sincerely?

the kid said...

Thank you.

G said...

If I didn’t feel that pain at all it would be wrong, but as long as I can still tell that I am human, that I am connected, is it valid to push those feelings of grief farther than they naturally would go, just because I could do it sincerely?

So is the question here whether to let nature take its course or to (in theory) impose your will on it?

SJ said...

G - I think that naturally the tendency is to shy away from feelings of grief when possible, simply because they are unpleasant and difficult, and we tend to avoid those things that are unpleasant and difficult. However, being a thinking person means that you make decisions based on what is right, not what is easiest. The question then becomes: is it more right to focus on those feelings of grief, or to follow the path of least resistance and overcome them?

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure that calling the latter method the "path of least resistance" is fair...it can be equally as challenging, if not more challenging, to take grief and redirect it to a more selfless end rather than succumb to it and mourn within oneself.

G said...

being a thinking person means that you make decisions based on what is right, not what is easiest

True, although i admit to not being able to remember the last time I had to go through a "thought process" about how to "feel".

Sounds awfully "created" to me.

Erachet said...

I agree with G's last comment, but I think he's misunderstanding what SJ means. It's not that you sit there thinking, "should I feel sad?" It's more, you feel sad, but then rational thought comes in and says, "is it okay to feel sad now? Should I shield myself from it and distract myself until I get over it? Or should I allow myself to wallow a bit?"

As for what I believe - I think every situation is different. I don't think one can make a general rule about this stuff, but I do believe that while there is room for lots of grey, any move into the area of excessive should be avoided, ESPECIALLY if you aren't really connected with whatever is making you feel sad in the first place.

SJ said...

anon (if you use some sort of name it will help me identify you better--are you the same anon as in the previous comments?) - Granted. For some people, in some situations, it might be easier to mourn, for others, easier not to. I guess I had the latter scenario in my head.

G - Sometimes emotions can be controlled, sometimes they can't. Yet, knowing what one would consider to be the more ideal emotional state is useful in attempting to control and or/channel emotions. If we always succumbed to our original emotions we would run into some major problems.

G said...

"Control" and "channel", to me, imply actions to be taken with emotions that have naturally come into being.

Is this what you mean, or are you advocating considering each situation and then deciding "ok, based on "x" i feal my emotions in this case should be "y"?

SJ said...

Obviously, I am not advocating the latter scenario. For one thing, I don't think it's possible. Emotions are what they are, but it is possible to choose to focus on certain emotions and not on others, or to attempt to suppress or curtail some emotions and encourage others. The point of this post was (originally) more theoretical--once one has established the theoretical ideal, he can evaluate how much control he has over his individual emotions in any given situation and act accordingly.

G said...

Fair enough.

The wording of this stement kind of threw me:being a thinking person means that you make decisions based on what is right, not what is easiest

This I understand much better: Emotions are what they are, but it is possible to choose to focus on certain emotions and not on others, or to attempt to suppress or curtail some emotions and encourage others.

Although to be honest...I am not sure what "encouraging" emotions entails.