Empathy is Bullshit

Define Empathy

In this photo taken Sunday, Sept. 27, 2009, a sculpture by Chinese artist Chen Wenling entitled "What You See Might Not Be Real" is on display at a gallery in Beijing, China. The artwork is a critique of the global financial crisis with the bull representing the golden bull of wall street and the man pinned to the wall representing the jailed financier Bernard Madoff. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

This past Saturday a friend of mine visited and over beers at my local watering hole he said something which has been ringing in my mind ever since:

“Empathy is bullshit.”

There’s so much I want to say about this profound truth that I don’t know where to begin. The implications which ricochet from a deep understanding of this idea in the vast fields of morality, politics, well-being, self-control, love, art, and meaning in life are innumerable.

My friend, Sean, was mentioned in my Philosophy post, Thoughts of Death on a Wednesday Morning. He’s a writer who comes from a extremely religious background. Both of Sean’s parents are pastors, yet he’s an outspoken atheist. The context of the statement was a conversation where Sean mentioned how his mother considers herself an empathetic person. So she feels like she can frequently give life altering advice (especially to her daughter). But Sean has witnessed, more often than not, that his mother gives faulty, conflicting, detrimental advice because she’s unconsciously imagining how she would be in a specific situation, which is usually not how the person actually is. For example, Sean’s sister had an anxiety attack because she wanted attention. Yet Sean’s mother believed her daughter was anxious because she was worried about an upcoming test. “Just keep studying, honey.”

A wise quote concerning parenting from my grandmother comes to mind: “You can’t put an adult head on a child’s shoulders.”

What sparked our conversation was a waiter who pointed at Hank (who was wandering around the outdoor patio in search of french fries) and began talking to us about his dog and how Hank looked tough. I mentioned to Sean that this man was merely projecting his own ideas on my dog. I’ve witnessed thousands upon thousands of people reacting to Hank in a diverse number of ways. He’s so cute. He’s scary. He’s charming. He’s mean. He’s lovable. He’s dangerous. And in many cases the people bring it back to themselves and start talking to me about their dogs. How interesting you are, fellow stranger.

Everybody has their own agenda. Everybody has their own, different, unfathomable past. Conversation and human interaction are both extremely limited. Yet we all mentally and socially poke at another in attempts to relate and connect.

But Sean and I are both writers so we believe we can, in a sense, empathize with people in order to create original characters, scenes, and emotions via our imagination. But the truth is you never create another, unique person…you merely reveal parts of yourself. 

Empathy comic pain

Concerning the comic above, what if the blob-man on the left had experienced hundreds of arrow wounds in his past and had developed a tolerance for pain. Would he be feeling the same pain as the blob-man on the right? What if the blob-man on the right was born with a genetic condition which made his ass perpetually numb? What if the arrow was shot by an enemy? Or a friend? What if the arrowheads had different degrees of sharpness?

Statements like: “I’m tired. I’m bored. I’m happy. I’m excited.” are essentially meaningless. Yet people communicate these emotions and ideas to each other all of the time.

einstein empathy

 Albert…does anyone have the time or the ability to patiently and sincerely see the world through another person’s eyes? Isn’t it horrifying and extremely dangerous if someone believes they can actually do this? Even if it’s a child or a loved one? Because if you believe you can sincerely see the world through the other person’s eyes, you believe you cansincerely guide them, which means you want to sincerely control them. 

What’s troublesome is that our morality is built on this belief. And of course we have to guide our children…THINK OF THE CHILDREN…

But I think the best way to do this is through example, not through prescription. 

No, we can’t walk a mile in someone else’s shoes…but for us to form relationships, help one another, and love we have to…in a way…to a certain extent. It’s all very confusing.

I know it’s cliche for me to say this…but the older I get and the more experiences I have the more I realize that I don’t know anything at all. Can I ever begin to understand the shattered dreams, rising hopes, incessant pains, heartbreaks, victories, and triumphs of the people around me? No, I cant. Stop trying.

Throughout my life I believe I’ve been curious and sensitive to a fault. I’m interested in the people I meet and I want to learn about their lives. I throw myself into the whirlwind of situations and open myself up to the transient, fickle facets of the world…but didn’t you know, J.W. Kash, that people and the world are inherently indifferent? You poor, ignorant, son-of-a-bitch. Often I’ve envied the callous monsters around me (they visit my bar everyday)…of course they should step outside themselves, peer above the little boxes they bump and rattle against…but if you do that too much…you become lost, disheartened, disillusioned.  Outside your box you find nothing but vague, amorphous boxes.

Society is a masquerade and a circus. I also have a tendency to take life very seriously…and I have to remind myself this everyday. You can observe people walking in their shoes, but don’t try and wear them.

To conclude…a religious poem:


Shut your mouth
Be kind
And do your job