Empathy, compassion, and revolution

Why do people do make the life decisions they make? Why somebody decides to become a revolutionary and another a dictator? Why some people become doctors and go to Haiti to cure AIDS and others become Kenneth Lay?

After watching Walter SallesThe Motorcycle Diaries I couldn’t stop thinking about empathy, compassion, and revolution.

The empathy continuum – One could describe empathy as a two-dimensional continuum: on one axis the distance between the subject and the objects of his or her empathy; on the other the intensity of the feeling.

On the distance dimension of the empathy continuum, one extreme is occupied by people who care only about themselves and show a total disinterest for the suffering of others. It might be an emotional failure of empathy (I don’t realize you are suffering) or just cold and calculated reasoning (I know you are suffering, but I don’t care, and I will happily take advantage of your suffering). Think, for example, of sociopaths, dictators, and some politicians.

In the middle, there the common range of empathy, first for the people that are closer to us and then for people that are progressively far from us (my family, my friends, people who are like me, people who are not like me but I can bear, etc.). This is where most likely you’ll find you and me.

At the other extreme there is the christian or buddhist ideal of compassion, which includes not only me and the people I love, like, or admire, but also my enemies and the people I hate and despise. Think, for example of saints and mystics.

At each point of the distance axis, empathy can manifest itself with more or less intensity. How strong is the feeling? How much is one willing to give up to reduce suffering of others? Would I risk my life to save somebody else? Would I give up my house and possessions? Would I just donate some of my money? Or would I just ignore it?

Empathy, compassion, and revolution – In 1952, Ernesto Guevara de la Serna leaves his sheltered Buenos Aires life and goes on a motorcycle trip across South American with his friend Alberto Granado. During the trip he sees first hand the suffering and injustice that plague his continent. Saying that he sees the suffering is misleading, though; Ernesto seems to experience the suffering of the poor, the sick, and the dispossessed as his own suffering and at the end of the trip he finds himself unable to go back to his previous safe life and to ignore what he had experienced.

Ernesto’s empathy is the feeling of unity with the oppressed; it lacks the universality of compassion but it possesses a powerful intensity. He doesn’t feel empathy for the oppressors and is not interested in finding common grounds with them, but he is ready to give up his privileged life to save the less privileged. He is ready to take arms against the people in power to make a better world for the people who are now oppressed. For him, revolution is the necessary expression of his empathy; being a doctor would have allowed him to save people one at the time, but it won’t have touched the fundamental cause of suffering and oppression. Being part of a revolution gave him hope that the conditions that create oppression would be eradicated together with the causes of unjustified suffering.

Based on distance and intensity of empathy, one could build an empathy profiles for Ernesto Guevara, that might look something like this: Ernesto Guevara Empahty Profile

He has some empathy for himself and his family, even more for his friends, and high level of empathy for the oppressed. He probably slightly despises people who are indifferent to the suffering of others, and has an intense "negative empathy" for big and small oppressors.

Regardless of whether Ernesto Guevara was right or wrong, anybody who is seriously in the business of relieving suffering finds oneself at some point wondering about the relative value of local intervention versus social change. Physician and anthropologist Paul Farmer founded Partners in Health and built hospitals in Haiti and in other countries that are a miracle of minimalist health care effectiveness (Mountains beyond Mountains, Farmer’s biography by Tracy Kidder is a great reading). Dr. Farmer believes that the spread of epidemic diseases such as HIV and tuberculosis shares the same social and political roots with the violations of human rights and that health care and social inequality are inevitably interconnected:

We can’t disassociate ourselves from social justice movements. As physicians, this is a part of what we do.

(More about Paul Farmer: here and here [PDF].)

And so? – I was wondering how we would describe the emphaty profile of the United States. I am not thinking about an average empathy profile of the citizens of this country, but rather of the national profile as expressed by the political choices on social issues and international policy.

Katrina has made painfully visible how social inequality and neglect can make a powerful country vulnerable. Social policy decisions have increased exponentially the gap between the rich and the poor: lack of socialized health care (see Malcolm’s Gladwell The Myth of Moral Hazard), erosion of necessary basic services, the refusal to increase the minimum wage, which keeps working people in poverty (and unable to afford health care), the social indifference for the personal and social devastation brought by the lack of a protective net to catch people from falling into misery (when people fall it’s OK to help them with charity, but the efforts to prevent people from falling by building a safety net with tax money are not as appreciated).

But America, as any other society, is one. If the poor suffers, the rich is at risk. If the poor gets sick with infectious deseases that are resistent to medications, the rich is in danger too. Violence and crime will be higher the higher the gap between the different layers of society. The realization that everything is interconnected is the reason why Buddhism talks about compassion in such broad way (and so hard to accept: how can I have compassion for my enemies, the people that make me suffer, those I hate?). Would this country ever abandon the extreme worship of The Individual and become a society of interconnected beings?

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9 thoughts on “Empathy, compassion, and revolution

  1. I’d like to know your views on the ‘universality of empathy’ and how you feel, as indicated, albeit vaguely, this is compromised by ‘lack of empathy’ for the rich.

    It could be argued that the ‘lack of empathy’ for the rich is counterbalanced by empathy for the ‘rich’ as ‘humans’. After all, the need to bring about economic equity does not mean that the ‘rich’ are to be deprived of what one might want to afford the oppressed.

    The desire to bring about equity is itself the universal application of empathy as it appreciates all humans on a single level. Implying that the universality of empathy is compromised by the ‘lack of empathy’ for the rich is not unlike stating that an appreciation of virtue is compromised by identification with angels as opposed to devils.

  2. Cara sorella,
    ho letto il post e mi sono detta: interessante, nel mio caso, l’idea del profilo empatico. Perché questo profilo ha una forte corrrelazione sulle decisioni, come sull’incapacità di dare una direzione alla tua vita. Quando il tuo profilo empatico ha dei picchi è facile scegliere sulla direzione che avranno i tuoi passi: hai delle priorità. Ma quando alto o basso che sia, il livello della tua empatia non sale e non scende mai troppo lungo l’asse orizzontale, lì nascono dei problemi. I buddisti, ad esempio, spesso peccano di immobilità. La compassione, così come la legge dell’interdipendenza, ti fanno galleggiare in un mondo così complesso, delicato, fragile che la scelta dell’azione diventa troppo complicata, troppo gravida di conseguenze incontrollabili. Io sto cercando il modo di trovare i miei passi, ma non so quale sarà il contributo che la mia vita potrà dare al mondo, in tutta sincerità, ossia in sintonia con il mio profilo empatico.
    La parte riguardante il dottore di Haiti, non conscendo l’argomnto in precedenza come per il Che, non l’ho capita, me la puoi spiegare?

  3. I’ve often thought that “Love your neighbor as yourself” made so much sense, in part, because, well, what’s the difference between the two? Interconnectedness is perhaps the single most important idea western culture doesn’t “get.”

    Not that I’ve quit my job to help the poor, either … so, really, I struggle with my own hypocrisy on this.

    The drop in empathy from a violent revolutionary’s point of view, when considering the “oppressor,” is a really fascinating insight … I hadn’t considered it.

  4. Motorcycle Diaries was a gorgeous film, unfolding the story of how Guevara came to fall in love with his almost achingly beautiful continent, and especially with its disenfranchised people.

    But let’s not romanticize the man. We can’t ignore who he turned into. If he was empathetic, he certainly learned to compartmentalize those feelings. In his post as commander of La Cabana Fortress prison, he oversaw the torture and execution of hundreds of prisoners, some of whose only crime was to hold an opposing point of view. Big-time oppressor himself!

  5. My comment is sort of in response to Andrew but also to the idea the general idea of total commitment to social change is somehow the ultimate expression of empathy.

    In the wake of Katrina a friend of mine from New Orleans expressed a deep feeling of guilt that she had where others had lost. She had moved from New Orleans a few years ago. Now in the midwest she was far from the storm and was able to take in family members that had lost everything. She said that she should sacrifice everything and work for justice. She should work until everyone who was homeless had a home.

    I felt guilt as well. Guilt that I have what some would call a good life. What I told my friend, and what I tell myself, is a truth to which I am just starting to see – that empathy can be both individual and collective. Do I need to sacrifice everything while injustice exists? No. As long as I act with conscience and purpose day after day, and as long as I act in service to humanity, and as long as I am willing to sacrife when called to, I am fulfilling my role in the collective expression of empathy that will effect change in people’s lives. Real justice is not only the product of the efforts of a few revolutionaries who sacrifice all in the path of justice. Real justice is also served by the outpourings of empathy expressed by the multitudes who sacrifice a portion of their share of prosperity.

    My belief is that those who have the means and feel a deep sense of empathy need to maintain their lives of prosperity in order to act as an ever-charged battery that can fund those who do feel the need to sacrifce all they have in order to bring justice to those who do not have it.

    My friend should not feel guilty that she has a home, a good job, and her health because those are the very things that allow her to make the sacrifice and help her family who are now homeless, jobless, and sick.

    Sorry if the commet is a bit long. I guess I should start a real blog of my own.

    BTW Antonella – your blog is fantastic! Who knew that I worked with such a wonderful soul!

  6. Hi David,

    long comments are good! (but I also highly recommend blogging, if you have a lot of extra time to spend in front of a computer).

    I think you nailed on the head the issue I am grappling with now.
    OK, dear poor and dispossessed, I feel your pain; I really do. And now what? Do I abandon my life to make the world a better place? Do I volunteer on the weekends? Do I send money to the Red Cross? Do I just ignore it? What would make me feel that I am contributing to solve the problem rather than making it even worse?

    I cannot stop thinking that part of the suffering of the world is a consequence of our waste and excessive wealth, which would make me partly responsible for it, and this feeds the guilt. But I am also afraid.

    When I was in Italy I was never afraid this way. I was frustrated and I often felt humiliated, but not really afraid. I didn’t need to have a job to pay for my health care. I didn’t care about saving enough for my retirement. I didn’t have a mortgage. But here I feel that all the burden is on me; if I fall nobody is going to pick me up, and I am afraid that I will fall.

    So, in a a way even if I am much wealthier I feel less free and more constrained, more paranoid about my future, and less able to help others. And I don’t like it.

  7. I can’t say that this is a universal truth that helps that guilt, but it seems to fit for me. Jennie (my wife) and I try to live below our means. We do the best we can to support charities and causes that matter to us, and we both try to be of service and volunteer where we can. Doing all of that makes the odd shopping spree at Borders feel less like a guilty pleasure and more like a well earned reward.

    My faith has a very strong message of social justice. In fact, one of the central teachings is the elimination of extreme poverty and extreme wealth. But it is also clear that the wealth we acquire through honest work is not to be seen as a burden. If we avoid greed and work in service to humanity the the wealth we have will not become a burden. The key is detatchment. This sounds like a good blogging topic. Hmmmm.

  8. Fascinating.

    I know that I have trouble with big picture/social change empathy. Probably why I’m a shrink — I prefer one to one contributions. Many of my charity acts and contributions happen on an extremely small scale, local level.

    interesting what this all means…

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