If we all say love is infinite, how could we know about serial injustice and mass human suffering day in and day out and sit still? What causes us to freeze and suspend our belief and personal contribution in demonstrating humanity’s capacity for good?
Unless you are involved in some cult that celebrates the dark side of humanity, I am pretty sure that the text of all religions extols a particular human virtue – that of the human capacity to love, even a stranger. You sway to songs about being one another’s responsibility in your church services. Literature is pretty extravagant in expressing this virtue as well, and no less than John Donne wrote “…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
We know this in our heart of hearts, especially when we see things change for the better once we start feeling for others and then acting to help out. This is why films like Schindler’s List – a film about a businessman who risked his life to help many Jews escape death during World War II – touch a chord that resonates across generations. But why can’t we sustain this emotion as much as we need to?
How many times have you changed the channel when you come across human suffering, only to change it again when you land on another one that shows you another kind of human suffering? How about those times when you reassured yourself that your empathy and compassion cannot possibly make a dent in the sea of human tragedy? The more it seems to be needed, the less (or even none) of it can be found.
Many times, we are outraged by the injustice we know about, but unless we ourselves experience it, we eventually lose our rage and grow cold. Unless we recognize how others feel and respond appropriately, colonizing Mars will really sound like the better option so we could reboot ourselves as feeling humans, start anew, and see where that goes. But while Elon Musk is working on that, the rest of us have to face the task of dealing with suffering and easing it.
So are we born with empathy, or do we have to be taught? A new study revealed that it is both, but not equally. They initially found that 10% of empathy can be attributed to our genes, but the rest depends on other things – the other biological factors present in the womb (outside your DNA), how you were raised and taught, and under what environmental and social conditions. In other words, the state of mass apathy we seem to have now is more a result of how we have been shaped by our families, schools, and society, than it is because of our DNA. Therefore, we have neural circuits that result in this kind of competence – to feel for others – and this circuitry is 90% not dependent on nature’s gift pack for you at birth.
The study also found that women seem to be more empathetic than men, but it could not find any underlying genetic reason for this. So again, it must be the way we raise girls and boys. A researcher has been studying this, and he found that men and women have different ways of experiencing and expressing empathy.
Research has so far shown what seems to happen to us when we respond like stones to situations that call for an active response, and if you read further, you will probably see yourself in it.
Since the brain is a muscle, the emotional circuits it has could also get overwhelmed, feel burdened, and tired. Anything that feels tired, or anticipates being tired, will not likely act. One study saw this in medical care professionals. Those who fear being burned out by being exposed to constant suffering tend to distance themselves emotionally from their patients and from their families in order to deal with their burned-out feelings. But this is dangerous because the same study saw that patients who are cared for by detached medical care professionals are less likely to be well. So who wins in this tug-of-empathy? All of us seem to lose when we choose not to empathize.
Translate this to those outside the field of medical care. When you see news of killings, hunger, and deprivation day in and day out, you feel like clocking out of this human cycle – and in these modern times, you could do so by just turning off the television or changing the website. Worse, you rage under your virtual identity, post abusive words, and then leave without a trace, but nothing changed for the better after you unleashed your personal rage. The consequence of opting out of a proper and a much needed response will not even haunt you because there is no consequence – none that is direct, anyway. But we all sense that we have degraded as a society and as a species when our personal response could have really counted.
Another study saw that when faced with a massive call for help from others, our sense of compassion collapses. We are more likely to help one than many because we immediately sense that it will cost us more to help many even if we are not being asked to donate any at all, or even one amount, regardless of the number of people asking for help. Our fear is irrational. For example, when you’re being asked to help out by donating P100, whether it is for one hungry child or 5,000, it is a call to humanity at large, and not in proportion to your bank account.
But nothing in the studies confirm that our sense of empathy and sense of compassion are limited. They are limited only by our own fears of being burned out, but as the new study I mentioned revealed, we can shape the rest by ourselves, beyond our genes. Other studies have shown that when we train ourselves in compassion, we are able to process our own suffering and the suffering of others without shutting down. We can mold our capacity to face our own suffering and the suffering of others so that beyond our initial shock, we can act.
Yes, love is infinite. Even science says it can be. But we have to snap out of our stupor first. Science also shows we could. We should. The alternative is not worth all the energy that all our religions and books and poems of love exalt. – Rappler.com
There are no comments yet. Add your comment to start the conversation.