Creatures of Empathy

We are creatures of empathy. We are in a double-bind – one among many. Either suppressing our empathy, or letting ourselves feel even a fraction of the death and destruction we are complicit in takes a tremendous toll. When we look timorously at the effects of collapse we discount what I expect to be an expansive relief when it appears on track  to actually putting a crimp on what is being done in our names, in a complex dance between an amping devastation and its influence on our ability to continue our destruction of the Earth beyond some point of ecological no-return. We tend to avoid these thoughts, or at least feel uncomfortable about having them. The angry-man will blame us for cheering for society’s collapse, for civilization’s fall. His inability to see beyond black & white, and experience anything other than conflict, leads him to fear the straw-man he’s put up and to want to prohibit what he can’t understand. We let our own discomfort with the wellsprings of emotion lead us to confuse cause and effect. We join the angry-man in the delusion that desire, or the expectation brought on by a certain emotional state, will itself create an outcome in the physical world. “Step on the crack and break your mother’s back!” This trap makes it hard for us to imagine life any different from what we know. All our insecurities concrete around this little seed of doubt.

We return to the condition of abused children, as Derrick Jensen has pointed out so well. In our powerlessness we project that our mere wishes, however unbidden, can transform the world in terrible ways. This is the source of the “Avenger.” We get carried away on righteousness or at least feel its tug on our equilibrium. In such an emotional atmosphere, bombarded by the evidence of harm on those beings we love and feel are powerless – as we feel ourselves to be – we fall into this internal struggle where we are afraid to even think, lest our thoughts come to life and compound the destruction we abhor.

We need not be ashamed of our empathy. Shutting it down takes us to the level of that apocryphal angry-man. This is the way battering enters the next generation, this internal emotional death that makes way for the acting out of the destructive patterns by someone who was earlier victimized. Our reaction of horror at continued destruction we can embrace as a sign that we have not killed our empathy, even as we realize it has no magical powers to stop the evil-doers, to use a terminology long accepted in the culture of prohibition to mask over and justify further horrors.

A first step towards finding a potential for right-action, to replace the tumultuous and confused state we find ourselves in, is to settle down. We need to accept both the pangs of hurt our empathy opens us to, as well as the inability of our mere unconsidered reactions, our wish that the batterer should die, will bring about any result.

Double-binds, that hell of frustration that can lead some to split and shatter their personalities or others to lash out with great swords attempting to cut through the Gordian Knot, are also the training grounds for finding a way beyond the dead-ends and blind alleyways of the Modern Problem-solving Mindset. It is possible to navigate between those extremes; the one expecting sheer internallity to generate a world without conflict, and the other expecting simplistic vigorous action to transport us beyond predicaments that are insolvable.

There’s so much to consider and much to be done, but we cannot enter the world of effective action until we embrace the discomfort of our double-binds. We cannot be effective; falling to the internal tensions brought on by our continued empathy, or into the morass of spiraling unintended consequences that plague any righteous campaign to remove the cause of our frustration, whatever that might be. Bouncing from one of these reactions to the other has brought us the follies and conflicts we call human history. An awareness of the mechanism will not remove them from our future, but they will help us to see more clearly, and remove ourselves from the rhythmic pressures first to push towards one extreme then the other. Someone has to stop rushing from side to side, to stop cowering in internal paralysis or plunging ahead in ill-considered reaction. This uncomfortable first step awaits our acceptance of its necessity. We can never get past this point without taking the responsibility to fulfill its exacting demands.

We are creatures of empathy. This is our tie to the Earth that is our home. The call of empathy should not be confused with maudlin wishes either to be uncritically embraced in sheer emotionality or rejected in an internalization of some death embrace. It is an exacting imperative that requires of us a rigorous blend of acceptance and right-action. The results will never match any expectation, but they will flow along that edge of what is possible. We can’t find that edge, let alone influence its unfolding, unless we accept our empathetic natures and move beyond our discomfort at frustration.

Published by Antonio Dias

My work is centered on attending to the intersection of perception and creativity. Complexity cannot be reduced to any given certainty. Learning is Central: Sharing our gifts, Working together, Teaching and learning in reciprocity. Entering into shared Inquiry, Maintaining these practices as a way of life. Let’s work together to build practices, strengthen dialogue, and discover and develop community. Let me know how we might work together.

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