I am strong believer that one possesses only a finite and limited amount of genuine empathy to practice in life. I have blogged about a similar idea previously- the notion of “Dunbar’s Number,” a theory that posits that people have a limited amount of human beings, namely family and close friends, for whom they can authentically feel and care.
I wholeheartedly believe this theory. Therefore I jealously guard my empathic feelings and emotions for those whom I can have a direct and real impact on in their lives –my parents, my own family, and close friends.
Please do not get me wrong, if I were to see a stranger choking on a sandwich in public I would rush to practice the Heimlich maneuver as my empathy would be generated by close proximity and my ability to engage.
Yet the mass media, also known as the handful of corporations that control the news I receive and the impact/style in which I see it, wants to drain my empathy tank and create news narratives that tempt me to care.
Let’s think outside the mass media box for a few moments. Please bear with me…
What if I were to suggest that the shooting of a gorilla in a Cincinnati zoo means nothing to me, or, for that matter, an alligator killing a young child at Disney World does not effect me in the slightest? Oh, and what if I was to say that I would not lose any sleep over a horrific nightclub shooting with 50 lives lost?
I would be an asshole, right?
Maybe. Yet perhaps such an attitude is warranted at a certain level.
I certainly could be informed of important information regarding such reported occurrences…careful of gators, vigilance in public places, etc…though empathy?
Perhaps it is a wise decision to NOT allow news directors to guide our life narratives, concerns, and conscience. Perhaps it is not cruel hearted or sociopathic to be in control of our own personal story while refusing to allow someone else to dictate what we should find relevant and important.
“But wait Jimmy, these terrible things really happened. Is it not natural and humane to show concern for such events?”
Glad you asked.
So, if a lack of concern for these matters causes you to think negatively of such a person, myself in this case, I could counter that your complete lack of concern over the thousands in our country who have died since these media events through illness, traffic accidents, drownings, and less “sexy” means of death –most of which go unreported- might make you the callous asshole, a lemming callous asshole at that, because you are allowing greedy corporations to dry up your empathy tank.
My father is not doing very well these days. I absolutely care about that. I care deeply and feel for him. Yet the news media tries to suck my limited amount of available empathy for strangers 3000 miles from my home? I do not believe our brains are even wired to be able to practice genuine empathy in these cases. Although I cannot make a direct cause and effect argument, perhaps it is no coincidence that with the rise of reported global events comes the rise of anxiety and depression…perhaps big pharma, producers of Xanax, Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, etc…have none other to thank than mass media.
If you do care and empathize with these reported events and show no concern for the un and under reported events, I would not believe you are a callous asshole, rather just a fellow human being who cannot possibly exercise true empathy for every tragedy the world offers up each and every day -we allow the news directors to do that work for us. Imagine having to be concerned for the 151,600 people who die EVERY DAY through all kinds of means? Kill me now.
I refuse to allow a news director tell me which of the 151,600 deaths I should care about and which ones I should not…by sensationalism in the former and through negation in the latter.
If the gorilla were my pet, the child my family or friend, or the nightclub patrons those within my social circle, I most definitely would care.
If I can go all neuroscience on your ass for a brief moment, according to Jason Mitchell, the head of Harvard’s Social Cognition and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory, human begins are wired to want to know and empathize with what is going on in the minds of people around them. In fact, this “neuro” feature has been instrumental in our success as a species as we are able to accomplish group goals that individuals alone could not. Empathy and understanding are vital to our survival.
In the context of the above research it was determined that this human aspect of the brain will begin to make us practice empathy with technology and machines as well as human beings. Yet I do believe there is another application as well.
So what happens when our empathic feelings are directed toward events in which we have no stake, nor ability to act? I can only speculate at this point, though it would seem that our empathic infatuation with media inspired events would ultimately work to handicap our personal ability to practice empathy in the contexts that really matter.
A friend recently wrote me an email and here is an excerpt that may demonstrate my point:
What I haven’t posted about but only alluded to is how profoundly affected I have been by what happened in Orlando. My strong sense of empathy has always drawn me toward watching unfolding news stories like mass shooting and reading the subsequent coverage. I can recall sitting on the bed in the house in (his city) back in 1999 watching the Columbine massacre and subsequently being engrossed in the news coverage 9/11, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook and the others. Jim, I have not been able to watch television coverage or even read an article online without becoming so distraught, I have to turn it off. I cannot say that some of that is because those killed were young gay men, but I felt as saddened by the deaths of the school children in Connecticut as I do to those in Orlando. What I keep coming back to is that text that one of the victims sent right before he was killed that said, “Mommy, I am going to die.” NO ONE should have to send a text like that and NO ONE should have to receive a text like that….NO ONE! The point of all this (right now) is that I am a huge ball of emotions right now.
This is my point…we are not wired to empathize with the entire planet.
Of course I could be wrong, though I would just venture a guess that my good friend is probably not a lot of fun to be around at the moment and that his strongly empathic reaction to these events is hindering his ability to function effectively in his relationships that matter most to him -on an interpersonal level.
Our brains are now deluded with global sadness that will harm our ability to practice local, effective relationship management.
But, but, but,…..these things that happen are so awful!
Yep, they are. Yet no more awful than the injustices, tragedies, horrific unreported things that happen every day.
From this day forward I vow to be captain of my own empathy ship -a ship with a limited cargo of empathy.