Is Hoping For Empathy Too Much To Expect?

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“How are you?” he asked.

She found the greeting indifferent. It disgusted her. It lacked connection and empathy. It was as empty.

It was like small talk – it meant nothing more than a forced exchange.
She thought it lacked any recognition of their interactions. It lacked any feelings and emotions the interactions evoked – pleasant or unpleasant. It displayed no value to their interactions. It displayed the absence of attention – a form of reception, open and nonjudgmental, of the world – to the interactions. It failed to identify and express the relationship that bound and bounded their interactions. It lacked effort to connect. It lacked empathy.

Most importantly, it displayed complete ignorance or even indifference to any common purposes that drove their interactions. But with such a greeting, could any purposes really be common?

Unfortunately, most people, like her or him, do not realize that the lack of attention and empathy is a symptom that the purposes of those interacting are not common.
But neither of them had thought of empathy that way.

They never realized that all interactions serve a purpose. Yes, a purpose. Like cooking. Having a conversation. Singing. Dancing. Painting. Gardening. Harvesting. Playing a game. Sharing a hobby. Reading. Learning. Exercising. Walking. Laughing. Listening. Meditating. Sharing something. Supporting. Seeking support. Caring. Providing care. Helping. Exchanging something. Entertaining. Being entertained. Inspiring. Motivating. Working. Caring for the environment.

Some purposes lasted for short time intervals; others could last long – even a lifetime.

Neither of them had noticed that when the interactions were to common purposes, their connections were strong. Nor had they realized that when their purposes for interactions were common, they empathized with each other. In fact common purposes made it easier to empathize with each other. They never realized that they sometimes called it bonding.

Nor had they realized that when the purposes were not common, it was difficult to empathize with each other. They never realized that their experience of coercion, exploitation, or abuse, in a system was because the others in the system had purposes that were not common to them. In fact, they did not know that the relationship that resulted from the purposes that caused them to interact was what those who studied interactions called as a system.

Over the years she had learnt to ignore the question inquiring how she was. His question after the meeting they had attended together, asking her how she was, suggested indifference. To her the meeting had been disempowering. She felt surprised to find him upbeat about the meeting. Mostly calm and composed, his demeanor upset her. How could he be feeling so different?

Instead of ignoring the question and moving on as she did every time, today she could not remain silent. The question provoked her. It amplified her feelings about the meeting, perhaps, because she was hurt by the lack of empathy in the question.

For what must have seemed like a very long minute, she expressed how she felt disempowered that the meeting did not address any questions that she had raised.
He was caught completely surprised. How could she have this outburst of feelings? Why can’t she be composed and logical?

“I empathise with you”, he said quietly. “But that was not my perception of the meeting we attended. It was a different meeting I attended”, he added.

“Wow, what understanding of empathy is that?”, she thought as she was taken aback. “How on earth do you empathize when you cannot feel what the other felt? And how are you empathising by immediately asserting that you felt differently?”

“Like him, most people have lost the not just the ability to empathize, but also an understanding of empathy”, she thought as she felt her disappointment reaching a new low. She felt more hurt at his assertion of empathy, than she had by the interactions at the meeting.

Neither of them recognized the lack of empathy they showed to each other exposed that the purposes of the interactions they just shared were not common to each other.
But then, their interactions lacked attention. They had no time for attention.

If only, like the French philosopher Simone Weil, they knew that attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer… It presupposes faith and love. But then, as Simone Weil had observed, attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.
Unfortunately, over the years they had learned more about exercising will than attention.
Will is about controlling one’s feelings and desires. It seeks suppression of feelings. It is indifferent to the purposes of interactions. It seeks power. Power over purpose, power over others. Power over feeling and emotions.

Attention is about receiving, respecting, and recognizing the purpose of the interaction of the other. It is about giving, caring, and feeling the same as the other would by your generosity of interaction. It seeks to empower. It is a recognition of the common purposes that you share. It expresses faith. It is an act of love.

When empathy fails, goals fail. When there are no common purposes, how can there be common goals? All that can be achieved is never what you want, but only what can result from the system – the interactions of the actors towards their purposes. If the purposes are not common, the outcomes can only be coercive, exploitative, or abusive.

To accomplish the common purposes, then, it makes sense for them to become the type persons who can interact to common purposes. Persons who make time for their interactions. Persons who hold attention to the interactions towards their common purposes. Persons who commit themselves to find joy in feeling and experiencing the interactions with each other.

But then, is that hoping for too much?


#All views expressed in this column are those of the author and/or individuals and institutions that may be quoted and Pune365 does not necessarily subscribe to the same. 

Anupam Saraph

Anupam Saraph

Dr. Anupam Saraph grew up in a Pune that was possibly a tenth of its current expanse and every road was lined by 200 year old trees. He’s committed to the cause of de-addicting the short-termers.

He can be reached @AnupamSaraph
Anupam Saraph

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