Wednesday, March 19, 2008

On Empathy

Pretty Lady is still reeling with inarticulate emotion, following dear Mr. Obama's history-making speech. So please excuse her if she is not as stylistically sprightly as usual.

One of the things she particularly noticed--aside from his searing honesty, balanced analysis, and transcendent perspective--was the way in which he made a very clear distinction between empathizing with another person's position, and agreeing with it, much less excusing bad behavior.

For Pretty Lady has often, often found herself in a similar position to Mr. Obama's--that of having to explain away the egregious faux pas of her erstwhile friends and associates. This is no accident; as all of her remaining friends know, Pretty Lady has ever made a habit of associating with Colorful Extremists of every stripe. This may well have begun as a sort of rebellion against the bland neutrality of her middle-class background, but soon grew into a cornerstone of her personal philosophy, as well as a natural extension of her temperament. Pretty Lady, like Mr. Obama, is an empath; an 'NF' on the Meyers-Briggs temperament indicator.

In practical terms, this means that we pick up on the History, Subtext, and attendant Emotion of every word or action of every person we meet. This is not a conscious choice; it is something that we simply cannot help doing. We do not ever hear a statement in the isolated context of Pure Logic, although we are eminently capable of understanding this logic, or lack thereof. We are aware, instantaneously, of the path the speaker took to arrive at his position, including all the wounds, mistakes, and frustrations inherent in that path. Thus we respond to their statements in a holistic, inclusive manner, not merely in a pointless battle of points.

Because we see people as whole, as conglomerations of disparate experience, temperament, personality and influence, not merely as greater or lesser logicians, we have a hard time condemning anyone out of hand. We take a step back, we watch, we listen, we look for underlying motives, intentions, and those signals which indicate Character, in aggregate. We understand that we are all sinners, and that by a too-hasty condemnation of the flawed Other we may, willy-nilly, condemn ourselves.

We understand that people's words and opinions are neither complete, nor are they set in stone.

In this manner, we try to arrive at a deeper understanding of others, as a means of finding more effective means of mutual communication, and mutual healing. We do not reflexively separate ourselves from things which might appear dangerous; like fools or angels, we stand our ground and quietly pay attention.

This process in no way implies that we support, justify, agree with or excuse destructive behaviors and philosophies. It is often interpreted that way, or twisted to false equation by unscrupulous parties. These parties tend to be those who wholly identify with the egoistic perspective--that in order to be Saved, one must condemn all imperfection in others, casting off any taint in order to present a face of Perfection to the Almighty Judge.

Darlings, this is not true. We are all imperfect. We heal and become perfect by accepting ourselves and others as we are, flaws and all, and judiciously making the slow, committed effort to change, with patience and compassion. Condemning others hastily--out of fear, intolerance, sadism, rigidity, or sheer self-serving expedience--is the road to Hell. It never ceases to shock Pretty Lady, how many self-declared Christians choose to follow this path.


k said...

I am so glad you have the courage to say these truths out loud.

Chris Rywalt said...

During my most recent appointment, I told my psychiatrist that I was tired of depression and diabetes, that I wanted a disease, like testicular cancer, where I could get some sympathy.

"You don't want sympathy, you want empathy," he told me.

"I always get those confused."

"Sympathy is one step above apathy."

k said...

Well, since those are two of my own conditions, y'all get both sympathy AND empathy from me.

The two really are not mutually exclusive.

Chris Rywalt said...

So I'm getting' some from you. Not too many other people yet, though.

Pretty Lady said...

Chris, I consider extended, long-term sympathy to be an insult, along the lines of pitying the ugly person, instead of admiring their wit and character. It's putting myself above you. I would not presume.

Short-term emergency sympathy, such as gasping and tsk-tsking when a person's car breaks down in the cattle chute approaching the Triboro bridge at rush hour, you may have in spades.

k said...

Chris, living where you do surely plays a part in that.

If you lived in, say, the Ark-La-Tex area, attitudes toward you might be very different. In fact you may well get sick and tired of everyone gluing you all over with the honey of:

oh bless your HEAAAAART!; OH you poor THIIIING!; and heh! you're a MESS! (that last one a very special and respectful term of endearment, said quietly and with a little chuckle.)

Since you're a white male and therefore Important, these would usually be followed by an offer of a nice cold beer, a stool upon which to rest your feet, and the time of the best fellowship service available at the speaker's favorite church.

You might well wish yourself back in the New York metro area, and fast.

That's before the testicular cancer, BTW - you get that much on the depression and diabetes alone.