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A Chapter by Paul

Section 4 of The Me Primer




              I believe the imagination I have is unique in the animal kingdom. It is unique as a giraffe’s long neck is unique, as an elephant’s trunk is unique. Until it is proven to me that other animals imagine in the same way that I do, I will maintain this belief. I can imagine a way of living that is not subject to my animal instincts alone. I can create and follow a code of conduct that gives me the confidence to know that I am not at the mercy of basic animal desires, my own desires or those of another member of the society I choose to dwell in. This evolutionary mutation, or honing of an element of my animal brain, also allows me to put myself in another being’s place. It allows me to have empathy for another. Empathy is a product of imagination that pushes me to seek justice not just for myself. It pushes me to work with others to build a society that relies on a code that promotes justice for all of its members. To me it is empathy that is most important for forming a society that is just. My notion of empathy is formed from the biological evolution of my inherited brain and the day to day evolution of my thinking. I think that my ability to empathize and to put aside empathy may be one of the most important aspects of my brains ability to imagine alternatives to my animal instincts. Perhaps variations of my instincts would be a better way to put it.

            I am talking about empathy not sympathy. There often seems to be confusion regarding these two terms. I do not want to imply that just feeling pity for another is what I am talking about. Using my imagination and experience I ask, what can another human experience that I cannot relate to in some way? I use empathy to mean that I am trying to understand another’s circumstance by imagining myself in their circumstance. What if the saddest thing that has ever happened to me is the loss of a beloved pet. Why can I not empathize with someone who has lost a human loved one. I can feel their pain, relatively speaking. I can say, “I know that feeling of the saddest I can be and I can imagine myself in your situation”. “You cannot compare the loss of a dog to the loss of my father” comes the retort. I say that I can imagine the pain. In this instance empathy is remembering the saddest I have been and relating it to someone else’s experience. I can also imagine losing my own father. Empathy is using my imagination to feel what this other is feeling. When someone tries to block my efforts to empathize then walls are formed and those walls will only get taller and thicker with each block. This can happen in racial, national, and gender situations: “you can’t know what it’s like to be me”. A more specific example would be: “you don’t know what it is like to be black when the police pull you over”. Can I, a white person, call to mind a time when I felt frightened or angry because I felt I was being picked on or felt that I was not going to get a fair hearing in a situation. If I can call to mind my worst moment with such a situation and imagine it happening several times, then why can I not empathize? I have to give some perspective: “I felt I was treated like that one time and I remember how angry I was, so I can imagine how this more consistent and intensive situation must be making you feel”. Allowing empathy can be as important as giving empathy in order to keep walls from forming. Breaking down such walls is not easy and I must understand that power is being given up by allowing such empathy.

            I do know that my empathy withers when someone keeps telling me that I have no idea what it is like to be them. I have known people who have had horrible things happen to them. They make their sadness, or their anger, so unique that I cannot understand it. There is always something to separate us. This not only makes me feel more separate from a person but can, certainly in extreme circumstances, push me toward those whom I more closely resemble and who allow my empathy. I do know that when I am comfortable empathizing with those who do not superficially resemble me, then I grow more comfortable with those superficial differences. "I can't imagine how you must be feeling" is the reverse of empathy. It is lazy and will not be helpful to a mature relationship.

            I do not want to paint empathy as an attribute that only leads to wonderful ends. There are times when I may have been too empathetic; times when whole societies have been too empathetic. The best way to show the importance of empathy is to give an example of when I have had to put aside or lessen my empathy. This would be when I am thinking about killing or hurting other animals. I need to put aside or lessen my ability to empathize when I am defending myself against other animals or killing other animals for food. I have to block my ability to put myself in another’s place in order to do them harm. This understanding of when not to use empathy convinces me how important empathy is to the progress of the human animal toward a just society. Empathy allows me to see myself in others and to give them the benefit of the doubt in many situations. It is in the DNA of “do unto others as you would have done to you” and yet I cannot forget that empathy must be put aside in times of imminent danger. I must know how to put it aside even if circumstances when I truly have to defend my life, or stave off starvation, are thankfully rare. I will always contend that if empathy were at the forefront of decisions that could lead up to situations of imminent danger, then many times these situations would not occur.

            I believe that there have been very few large-scale, modern wars that were one-sided attacks in which empathy would have been wholly detrimental. Raids on land solely to take what others had was, for much of our history, a mainstay of armies. I think that for many years now leaders have had to come up with some other pretense for attacking neighbors. The example usually given of too much empathy, is the policy of appeasement just prior to World War II. An aggressor, the Nazis, seemed intent on subjugating and in some cases destroying whole populations. But it is my inclination to think of World War II as the second part of a very long world war that began with World War I. It then had a period of relative peace between 1918 and 1939. In this context, I think of Nazis storming across Europe and I wonder: what if America had empathized with both sides equally in World War I? Would this war have ended in a stalemate, with no clear victor? What if the winning side had been more empathetic in the peace, would a less destitute Germany have been less of a breeding ground for Nazis? Yet the stalemate was broken and the war reparations put to Germany were harsh. Hitler took power and the Japanese military extremists came to power in the Pacific, so they had to be dealt with as imminent dangers. In this context I know that if I empathize too much, I will not be able to do the things necessary to avert my own subjugation and possibly my own demise. In one-on-one situations an imminent danger, and the danger of employing too much empathy, can be even more apparent. When an individual clearly intends to do harm to my person, and I react with empathy rather than self-defense, I will suffer. I think it is easier to see the imminent threat in these situations than on the larger scale. On the larger scale I believe that the situation reaching such levels of violence should be rare, especially if both sides of a disagreement are able to employ empathy toward their adversary. This is why leaders, who are intent on going to war, have to first battle the populaces ability to empathize. One of the first tactical moves is to make the adversary unworthy of empathy.      

            I feel now that I have never been more empathetic as a person; that I am more empathetic than my ancestors. I believe that many large populations of the world are more empathetic than ever before in human history. I think this comes from living in relatively affluent societies for generations and from diverse populations having a variety of extended interactions. Perhaps leisure time, time away from extreme hardship, also fosters empathy. And yet there are many individuals and groups of individuals today who have little empathy for others. There is no denying that there is great danger when dealing with adversaries who have less empathy for others. There is no denying that a resolution is impossible when no empathy is employed at all. It is sad to see well-meaning people finding ways to dilute their ability to empathize. They are doing this because they fear that they will be over-run by less empathetic adversaries. It is an awful position to be in. The position of having to judge when too much empathy will endanger individuals and perhaps whole societies. If I imagine myself in the place of a soldier involved in front line actions, I cannot have empathy at the fore-front of my thinking. But soldiers who never empathize are in danger of committing war crimes. This quandary is nothing new and the numbing madness of it should tell me how extreme a situation needs to be before I put myself in such a situation. 

            I need to maintain empathy for those who consider me their adversary. I need to do this even with extremists. In the long run I will have the high ground. I will have the high ground because I believe that most individuals want to live with a sense of security. A sense of security in the here-and-now and, if possible, the near future. Most individuals will gravitate toward this higher ground of empathy. They want empathy for themselves, and their loved ones, as individuals. Such empathy in a society makes for more personal security and I think individuals will be willing to tolerate many things to achieve this security. They will temper even their magical beliefs in order to feel that they, and their families, are safe. If I make my position the one that guarantees security for each individual, regardless of their individual beliefs, then this will be the high ground. I prefer to work toward this end rather than making decisions based on what an extreme individual, with extreme magical beliefs, will do. There are times this could cost me my life. There have been times in history when it has cost societies many lives, but once the initial attacks are over, the higher ground goes to those who employ empathy for the most individuals. The most individuals will be drawn to this position. I see extremists limiting themselves in ways that make them powerful in the short run and increasingly vulnerable once they have finished their initial attack. These extremists come from factions of all major religions and social belief systems. They cannot bear to exist with other belief systems. In my mind they become a common enemy, for a diverse range of individuals, because they meet on the circle at a point of totalitarianism. The far left and the far right keep bending the line away from individual self-determination, until they find each other at the hellish point of executions and concentration camps.

            There are just too many individuals who will not fit into the extremist’s ideal. Even those who share some magical beliefs with the extremists, will not be able to maintain living within such limitations. They will have children who will need empathy or come to care for neighbors who need empathy. There will always be a need for more understanding of diverse needs. I believe this need to fulfill individual desires will always find a way to puncture the limiting veneer of any extremist society.   

© 2022 Paul

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Added on April 24, 2017
Last Updated on June 11, 2022



I am writing in the Mid Atlantic area of the United States, mostly non-fiction at this time. I am a song writer as well. Also of interest could be- http://bookstore.trafford... more..

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A Book by Paul