Monday, November 3, 2014

Empathy (part I): Masochism

I have a complicated relationship with the word Empathy. In past posts I have skirted the issue of Empathy, touched briefly on my distain for the word, but I have yet to explore my reasons for disliking (in the nicest of terms) the word Empathy, and what that means, etcetera. You will find this word capitalized throughout, because I believe that is, on a whole, how the English speaking world views its importance.

But first: why do I harbor a loathing for the word Empathy? Because Empathy, in referring to the meaning of the word, does not exist; or, more succinct, it is impossible. Let us look at some definitions, so that I can try an explain myself (I attempted to pull from various sources for definitions and such, but Merriam-Webster just dominates my bookshelves):

Modern English Usage, by H. W. Fowler (1926)
This guy devotes no space in his book for the word Empathy. I am uncertain as to why, but there it is. This is important because it signifies one of three things: one, the word’s usage was well enough known and used for its defined purpose; two, that Fowler cared so little for the word as to omit it from his text; or three, that the word was in little use and therefore required no attention.

Webster’s Dictionary of Synonyms (1951)
This text also skips over Empathy, suggesting to me that there are no other words that can possibly resemble Empathy’s meaning. Again, there are two possibilities here: one, that the word is so specific and acute in its meaning, that no other word/words can resemble or clarify its meaning; or two, that Empathy as a word is not possible, because there is no other way to understand the word except in its own self-existence. The text does, however, contain the word “sympathy”, offering the following as synonyms: attraction, affinity, reciprocality, correspondence, harmony, consonance, accord, concord, pity, compassion, commiseration, ruth, condolence, empathy, bowels, tenderness, warmheartedness, warmth, responsiveness, tender, kindliness, kindness, benignness, benignancy, kind.

A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (1957)
Another text that does not contain the word Empathy, nor sympathy. I am certain there is some intriguing research that could be done on why these texts do not contain this words, but the drive is not there for me, so someone else will have to do it for me.

The new Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language (1971)
-Greek empatheia, from em, in, and pathos, suffering, passion.
-The imaginative projection of one’s consciousness into the feelings of another person or object; sympathetic understanding.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (1998)
1: the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it;
2: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also: the capacity for this.

The American Heritage Dictionary (2001)
-Identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives.
1: the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.
2: the imaginative ascribing to an object, as a natural object or work of art, feelings or attitudes present in oneself:

Merriam-Webster Online
-The feeling that you understand and share another person's experiences and emotions: the ability to share someone else's feelings;
1: the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it;
2: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also: the capacity for this.

Oxford Dictionary Online
-The ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Origin: early 20th century: from Greek empatheia (from em- 'in' + pathos 'feeling') (it’s main comparison to pull this list of words was “understand”)
affinity, appreciation, compassion, insight, pity, rapport, sympathy, warmth, communion, comprehension, concord, recognition, responsiveness, soul, being on same wavelength, being there for someone, community of interests, cottoning to, good vibrations, hitting it off.

Throughout the decades (at least what I have on my shelves and searched on the internet), the word has changed very little, if at all. In the simplest terms, Empathy is the act of one human vicariously experiencing/understanding the experiences and emotions of another human. That’s the problem I have: that we think we can understand the experiences of another; that we think we can vicariously know what it is like to go through something without ever partaking in said experience. Even if we have traversed a similar event, say the death of a parent, Empathy is still impossible. Which parent was it? How did the parent die? Was it cancer? Old age? Drugs? A car accident? An almost limitless litany of possibilities can separate us.

For argument’s sake, however, let’s consider that two individuals of the same sex and gender identification (to allow for the most similarities) have a mother that dies when they are 17 and the conditions for both are as follows: mother developed breast cancer in her early 40s, fought the debilitating disease for two years with extensive chemotherapy, died in the hospital (we’ll even say the same hospital), and was then buried in the local town cemetery. And let us assume that all other circumstances too numerous to list surrounding the deaths are exactly the same in both scenarios. Even in this example, Empathy is impossible, because Empathy will presume that both children have had the same day to day lives for the previous 15 before the mother took ill, and the same two years during her illness. That is not possible. We are not compartmentalized creatures, we do not and cannot separate experiences in our lives from others. Each second we live is informed by the entirety of our life lived previous to that second, a continuous updating of our personalities based what we try to define as the present. We are compilations of experience. We are variegated beings, unknowable even at times to our own consciousnesses. As much as I have a difficultly believing that every human on the planet is a unique individual, the sum of all personalities possible is infinite. No two people are exactly alike. Of course similarities are possible, even expected, but similarities are not exactitudes.

The trouble is we often confuse Empathy with sympathy, which is a gross misunderstanding. Sympathy is: an affinity, association, or relationship between persons or things wherein whatever affects one similarly affects the other. Unlike Empathy, sympathy does not pretend at individuals being able to comprehend the lives of each other, but instead indicates that we are emotionally connected, that the sorrow or joy of one affects the sorrow or joy of another, which is not only possible, but necessary. Sympathy is essential. It is vital to the existence of the human race. If we did not have sympathy, no one would have reason to care for or even consider another person, all would eventual devolve into chaos and disorder, selfishness would overpower all other emotions, bringing down humanity as a whole. We need to care about each other in order to keep the world functioning (if we want to keep humans on the planet). Sympathy binds us together in families, in marriages, and in friendships. Sympathy is was keeps total anarchy and slaughter from reigning. Sympathy is what makes us human, it is what separates us from other animals (in theory).

But Empathy, well, Empathy does not exist. Because in short, Empathy is not possible. Simple as that.

Now, to get to my point. What intrigues me (or confuses, or perhaps disgusts, I have yet to decide), is that we believe we have Empathy, or more accurately, we WANT to have Empathy. We WANT to feel the pain of others. Not all of us, mind you, but a large portion of humans on this planet DESIRE the pain of others, to know what others feel, to know why others feel what they feel. Since it is not possible to experience every feeling, every scenario, possible, we yearn for the pain and suffering of others, to fill in the gaps in our experiences (we do not consider someone Empathetic who can feel happiness with others, we use the term when someone is exceptional at feeling the pain of others, hence I focus on the negatives aspects of human relations when discussing Empathy). I believe it is why we read, watch movies, listen to music, view art, spend hundreds of hours just talking to people, study the sciences of the brain and culture, why we crave history; we want to feel the pain of others.

This brings me to the whole point of this tirade: Empathy is just another term for Masochism. Masochism is (in the non-sexual meaning): pleasure in being abused or dominated: a taste for suffering. Perhaps Empathy is not a pleasure, persay, but it is a desire for suffering. Empathy is the act of taking upon ourselves the pains of another, without experiencing that which caused the pain, and without being able to remove the pain from who we are vicariously living the experience. Empathy is a willingness, and I say a desire, to share the pain of another, especially when that pain cannot be shared and has no need to be shared. There is an attraction towards the suffering of others, to say “I know what you are feeling, I feel it too” even when we do not, or cannot. We want to feel that pain. We want to feel that suffering. It is almost reaches the level of pleasure to say that we are Empathetic, that we carry the pain and suffering and misery of others, or that we have the propensity to deprive ourselves of happiness to be like one who is struggling. Empathy is not sympathy, seeing others experience difficulty which in turn makes us sad for them, not in the least. Empathy, this masochistic conjunction, attempts to recreate the horrors of living that another has experienced, in someone who has not traversed said horrors (just ask Leopold von Sacher-Masoch). I do not understand such a desire. Life, whether you believe in a God or not, is about being happy; finding that which uplifts your consciousness and enlivens the body. Why, then, do we aspire towards Empathy? To our own self-inflicted pain and destruction? What does it do? What do we accomplish? We think we are becoming better people: better friends or siblings or lovers or whatever, because now we know what it means to be someone else, how it feels to be the ‘other’. Except, we do not. We are still, and forever will be, stuck inside our own flesh, our mind encased in fluids and bone interpreting external stimuli and converting them into electronic pulses that somehow get translated into what we call meaning. That neuronic electricity cannot be translated by another human brain. We can study it, even try to map it on computers and determine what pain and joy and confusion and creativity and so on, look like in the brain, but we cannot connect one brain to another. Whether by God or evolution, we have been placed in separate bodies for a reason. That reason being far too complicated for my personal understanding, but in the very least I believe it is because no one body can handle the full encompassing sorrow and pain that is human existence. Our weak flesh cannot handle such an overwhelming burden.

Empathy is the attribute of a God, an immortal perfect being capable of handling the immense pressure that true Empathy requires. The ability to literally, metaphysically, and metaphorically enter into the minds and hearts of others, to lift the weight of hardship. That is Empathy, and man cannot hope to come close to such a feat.
We may aspire towards Empathy, to one day be able to physically handle what it means to be Empathetic, but as mortals, as fallible flesh, our attempts at Empathy are nothing more than masochistic endeavors fulfilling selfish desires.