What Is Empathy? And What Good Is It?

Empathy has been a central concern of mine for most of my life.

Many conservatives talk about empathy being limited or somehow weak and unworthy, maybe even dangerous such as the allegation of sympathizing with terrorists. I’ve never understood this.

Maybe conservatives have issues with their own ability to empathize, but my empathy is often on overdrive and my entire sense of identity, my entire sense of morality and humanity is rooted in it. If anything, my problem is too much empathy or too strongly felt empathy. This isn’t to say it is about empathy making me a better person. It’s simply doesn’t fit what conservatives describe in their own vision of human nature driven by naked self-interest and ruthless Social Darwinism or else driven by a sinful fallen nature.

To be fair, most average conservatives genuinely want more emphasis to be put on family, religion, community and civic duty (also, ethnic culture for some). But even these average conservatives seem to be motivated by the same basic belief of having little faith in a greater capacity for empathy beyond the narrow confines of group identity (however the in-group and out-group are defined).

I would make a clarification to which conservatives aren’t likely to admit. Conservatives seem to recognize that liberal-minded empathy doesn’t have the narrowness, xenophobia and parochial quality that is more common to the conservative-minded expression of empathy. If they didn’t understand this, they wouldn’t wouldn’t worry so much about liberals sympathizing too strongly with the enemies, foreigners, diverse cultures, criminals, drug addicts, the poor, the homeless, the unemployed, the disenfranchised and the downtrodden, along with others deemed to be social inferiors and social unworthies.

So, it’s more that conservatives think people should willingly choose to limit their empathy or have society, specifically the political and economic system, intentionally constrain the effect of empathy to the small-scale, especially families and churches or private individual interests such as charity. In the place of empathy, they think we should prioritize something better to guide the moral order: principles, faith, rules, merit, etc. It’s not that they dislike empathy, but they can’t imagine a morally good world that is centered on a broader vision of empathy (i.e., a morally good world centered on a core liberal value).

I wouldn’t argue that there are no problems with empathy. It is apparent, to grossly understate the problem, that the human race on the large-scale has yet to get the knack for fundamentally caring about and for all people or even most people, as true in wealthy countries as poor, as true in oppressive states as in capitalist countries. It is the reason why civilization is failing and probably will continue to fail for sometime, assuming it will ever succeed.

My main disagreement with conservatives is that they believe civilization is better off without worrying about all that namby-pamby stuff of peace, love and understanding. From their perspective, the problem is too much emotional concern, too much softness, too much forgiveness. From my perspective, such obvious cynicism (and the realpolitik that goes with it) is mind-blowing, heart-wrenching and soul-despairing.

By the way, I hope it is obvious that liberal-mindedness and conservative-mindedness aren’t equivalent too or necessarily even strongly correlated to the two party system. I suppose it’s likely that most Republican political activists and elites would measure strongly on conservative-minded traits, but I honestly doubt that many Democratic political activists and elites would measure strongly on liberal-minded traits.

I’m not sure that liberal-minded traits are more rare. It might be something about liberal-minded traits not being as effective for seeking and gaining positions of power and authority, wealth and prestige. The regimented power structure of hierarchical big government (like big business) is fundamentally unattractive and contrary to liberal-mindedness, not to say it is impossible for a liberal-minded person to succeed under such circumstances, just difficult and less probable. Besides, to the degree they succeeded was most likely to the degree they sacrificed and undermined their liberal-mindedness.

In a conservative social system, even when some liberal values and/or rhetoric has been incorporated, it is a lose/lose scenario for the liberal-minded. To win according to conservatism automatically means to lose according to liberalism, although I’m not sure the opposite is true in the same way or to the same extent (since liberalism on principle is about accepting and allowing to the greatest degree possible for what is different, including conservatism), but I’d love to test my hypothesis one day if we ever finally create a liberal social system.

I was looking at research on empathy, motivated by my speculations on empathetic imagination. This combination of empathy and imagination is key to understanding liberal-mindedness. But it isn’t as simple as conservatives lacking empathy

The research does show a correlation between the abilities of empathy and imagination. Seeing this kind of research is what originally led me to coining the term empathetic imagination. Other research shows that empathy is negatively correlated to analytical thinking. It is difficult to empathize and analyze at the same time. As a side note, this makes me wonder about the possible negative correlation between imagination and analysis (which might be related to the opposing traits of optimism and pessimism, the research showing the former having greater capacity for change and the latter having greater capacity for accurate present assessment; just a side thought).

Leaving it at that is unsatisfying because this generalizes too much about all people. What makes psychology interesting to me is how much difference and diversity exists within human nature. So, are these kinds of attributes fully and always opposing and contradictory? Do they inevitably suppress the activity of the other?

Yes, it is no doubt challenging to simultaneously empathize and analyze (or imagine and analyze). But, I’d have to offer strong doubt to it being impossible. Based on still other research, one would presume that some people might be better at it than others.

On a personal level, I notice how closely linked are my own abilities to empathize and analyze (and imagine). I don’t know that I do them precisely at the same time and in concert, but I find it easy to quickly and smoothly switch back and forth so as to feel seamless. I couldn’t say whether this is an inborn ability or learned. It does seem to me that I was less analytical when young. I’ve become more analytical without, as far as I can tell, sacrificing my empathic tendencies. The two are closely tied together for me, at least in my own experience according to my own self-observations for whatever that is worth.

I feel my way into ideas in the way I feel my way into the experience of others. This intuition doesn’t seem inherently irrational, although it is or has an element of the non-rational. My intuition is one of the main tools I use in ascertaining rationality. With it, I sense the connections and compare them with alternative possibilities and interpretations. I don’t see how analysis would be possible without some minimal basic functioning of intuition. Something has to be perceived first before it can be analyzed (indeed Myers-Briggs theorizes intuition as one of two perceiving functions — sensation being the other — which offers the information to the judging functions, and also Myers-Briggs research has shown intuition to be strongly and positively correlated to intellectuality and IQ).

To complicate things, all of these factors (intellectuality, imagination, intuition, empathy) share the common positive correlation to certain well-researched traits. The specific trait I have in mind is the thin boundary type which I will discuss further after looking at some intriguing examples of how empathy can play out in diverse ways.

I was reading about how empathy manifests or not among those with different psychiatric disorders (read here for a summary).

For example, it has been theorized that psychopaths and autistics are mirror opposites. Psychopaths have impaired affective/emotional empathy, but may have unimpaired cognitive empathy. Even if they perfectly understand people (their beliefs, thoughts, motivations, etc) on an intellectual level, they won’t express much sympathy or compassion (especially to distress). Autistics have impaired cognitive empathy, but may have unimpaired affective/emotional empathy. They are strongly affected by the psychological state of others (especially distress), even though they have a hard time of understanding others. So, a psychopath can relate better to others than an autistic and also more likely to harm others, a dangerous combination.

My mom has suggested that I might have aspergers. I don’t know if that is true, but the empathy aspect fits.

I’ve always been extremely socially sensitive while, when younger, I was nearly a lost cause in terms of being socially oblivious and clueless. As a child, I was just as happy playing by myself as playing with other kids. I also had a language learning disability which is common for autistics and less so for aspergers, usually just a delay that can be remedied with therapy as was the case with me. My learning disability caused me to have delayed reading and permanent memory issues, specifically word recall, but I’m above average IQ. My above average IQ particularly related to high level of visuospatial skills which is a common trait of autistics.

This is interesting to consider as I see myself as extremely empathetic. Since childhood, I’ve overcompensated in many ways. I’ve become obsessed with communicating and with understanding human behavior. I still have social awkwardness and shyness, but it for damn sure ain’t because of a lack of raw empathy. My emotional empathy is always keen. As for my cognitive empathy, it has caught up at this point and now is, at least in some ways, far above average.

I haven’t thought of myself as having aspergers. I have developed a strongly intuitive sense of what makes people tick. If I have aspergers, I must have massively developed my cognitive empathy. I’ve had social issues, but the subjective sense takes no effort whatsoever. It is easy for me to read people these days, although the fact that I’m so self-consciously obsessed about it is probably a clue. Assuming I have aspergers, it must be mild which gives me immense empathy for those with severe autism. My mom worked with many severe autistics in public schools and her descriptions are very sad in some cases.

My brothers have told my mom that they suspect something like aspergers in themselves. My oldest brother had learning difficulties, although not with language, and my second oldest brother was diagnosed with anxiety disorder which might have been a misdiagnosis since aspergers don’t deal well with social stress (I’ve seen one of his anxiety attacks and I immediately recognized it as something I had experienced as well). All three of us have been socially challenged and have been on anti-depressants which could be a secondary result of the other issues.

Autistics have strong empathic distress with weak empathic concern (as a result of the impaired cognitive empathy) which causes social awkwardness and dysfunction. People are more likely to irritate or stress out an autistic than draw out a response of sympathy and compassion or even normal sociability and friendliness. This social distress is exacerbated with observing other people in pain which causes them to want to avoid the situation rather than offer help. However, when they understand someone’s state of mind, empathic concern is expressed normally.

Autistics lack a strong sense of Theory of Mind and can’t easily identify emotions even in themselves, much less in others, despite feeling emotions strongly. Empathizing is relational and so there is a close connection between self-awareness and social-awareness. Some theorize that autism may be an extreme male profile of neural functioning. What differentiates the genders is that men tend to have a smaller corpus callosum and so fewer connections between the two hemispheres. So, one might expect that men and autistics would have more difficulty than average with empathizing while analyzing or using both in concert by easily and quickly switching back and forth… or something like that.

This then brings me to the aforementioned boundary types, originally articulated by Ernest Hartmann.

Conservatives and men (also masculine women) have on average thicker boundaries than liberals and women (also effeminate men). This is the basis of calling the Republicans the daddy party and the Democrats the mommy party, and it is a fact that the two parties respectively have disproportionate numbers of men and women. I’m not sure about what research might have been done on autism and Hartmann’s boundary types, but I do know that most diagnosed autistics are male.

Also, there has been a long debate about whether women have greater empathy than men or rather whether the differences observed are inborn or learned. I’d see this as related to the debate about whether liberals (i.e., self-identified liberals and the liberal-minded) have greater empathy than conservatives (i.e., self-identified conservatives and the conservative-minded). Is it a matter of the degree or the kind of empathy?

The research I’ve seen is that there is a difference in when and how empathy is used. It is significant that more men are conservatives than liberals and more conservatives are men than women, and likewise with conservatives and thick boundaries. To be something like a surgeon or a judge requires one to clearly demarcate empathy from analysis, something thick boundary types are good at doing and something conservatives idealize. Not just demarcate, though; also, be able to shut off. A surgeon doesn’t want empathy to be within consciousness at all while slicing into someone.

To completely or even partly shut empathy off at will is not a strong talent for liberals and thin boundary types. On the other side, when a conservative or thick boundary type is in empathy mode, the very opposite probably happens and if so they’d have less access than liberals to analysis. Everyone to some degree suppresses analysis while empathizing and suppresses empathy while analyzing, but not everyone does it equally nor does everyone value it equally and seek to develop it further.

That is my own hypothesis. It is supported by the data I’ve seen so far, but it is too early to declare exactly what the difference is being shown.

The complicating factor for me is first and foremost personal.

As someone possibly with aspergers, my empathy may be far from the norm. Then again, those diagnosed with aspergers and autism have been increasing which either means the condition is increasing or the diagnosis is increasing. Maybe aspergers is on a continuum of normalcy, human nature normally containing a range of potential traits, behaviors and psychological profiles.

The angle of aspergers and autism confuses my thinking.  I suspect thin boundary is more closely related to affective empathy for that is the actual component of empathy that allows one to feel what another is feeling, to viscerally know another’s experience. Thin boundary types have a harder time distinguishing their own experience and identity from those they are around, especially in close relationships. Autistics and aspergers includes this affective empathy, above average in fact. On the other hand, these conditions also includes underdeveloped cognitive empathy which causes dysfunction in the affective empathy.

I’m not sure what any of that means. Are such people thin boundary types or thick boundary types? Is autism an extreme male psychological profile? Is this just an oddity that is irrelevant in trying to understand how empathy normally operates?

To continue with the personal, I’ll use the example of my dad to clarify the conservative mindset.

He is one of the most morally genuine people I know. He sits around worrying about being a good person. He is no fundy. He doesn’t take the Bible literally. But he takes his religion very seriously. He does his best to walk the talk. Minus the religiosity, my own nature is close to his. One of the biggest differences is that he is much more social than I. He is more outwardly good and successful, according to the standards of society. He loves to have a role to play, especially the role of authority figure, and he plays that role well; but he is also more willing to submit to authority without question or irritation. He has little problem with sticking to the rules and conforming to expectations.

My dad might win the prize for being the least socially dysfunctional person in my immediate family. And I probably could win the prize for being the most socially dysfunctional. So much for the greatness of my valuing empathy; empathy plus dysfunction just creates dysfunctional empathy, well damn. Unlike his liberal children, he never had any major social issues at any point in his life. He says he is shy, but he has even overcome that and it is entirely unnoticeable to an outside observer. He has held many leadership positions, including in various churches.

Despite his arguing for empathy being limited, he uses what empathy he has in a socially beneficial way, although his empathy has much less of an emotional quality than my own, maybe more of a sense of moral rule-following that an uncertain relationship to empathy as emotional concern. His empathy is probably average, at least for a conservative, maybe more cognitive empathy than affective empathy. He even is fairly humble which helps his empathy express relatively well, considering how confident he is able to act when needed. He is proof that basic levels of empathy are all that are required for being a generally good person, good citizen, and good Christian; at least according to conservative social norms.

It’s true that he doesn’t spend as much time imagining the lives of and identifying with those who have fallen on hard times. And it’s true that he is more likely to blame people for the hard times they find themselves in. He has never experienced bad times to any great extent and so it’s not part of his personal sense of reality. Nonetheless, he’ll volunteer at the local soup kitchen and he’ll donate large amounts of money to organizations that help those in need. I’d put it this way. Empathy for him is more of a luxury than a necessity. It’s a good thing to have for charity, but it’s useless for the real work of life: business, leadership, etc. It’s just something to contemplate in one’s free time after a hard day’s work or in retirement after a life of hard work and success

He is a standard conservative in prizing pragmatism or rather the rhetoric of pragmatism, the question being pragmatism to what end. Whatever empathy he might lack relative to bleeding heart liberals, he makes up for it with practical action toward his conservative-minded goals. He is a man of action and authority, the ideal of conservatives. If all or just most conservatives were like my dad, the world probably would be a decent place, although the problems would still exist if in more mild form.

I was having a discussion with my dad about religion.

My dad is in a Bible group. Because he is now living here in this liberal college town, he has been forced to deal with more liberals, including in his Bible group, than he has become accustomed to from having spent 20 years in South Carolina. There is one particular liberal view with which he has been struggling: the value of giving freely without limiting one’s charity to moralizing judgment and expectation.

He is coming around to awakening to how truly radical is Jesus’ message. It can’t be limited to conservative morality. Jesus didn’t demand people be good conservatives, good Christians or good anything before he offered help and healing. This is mind-blowing to him. I’ve been pointing out to him this fact about Jesus’ teachings for years, but he just didn’t get it. The idea of a radical Jesus didn’t fit into his conservative Christian worldview. Conservative Christians believe Jesus is good and radicals are bad. So, how can Jesus be both good and radical?

Jesus wasn’t interested in saving the social order, promoting family values, punishing wrongdoers, and forcing the troubled to be responsible citizens. My dad’s sense of honesty disallows him from dismissing this realization. So, he has to put it into terms he can understand.

He spoke of first-order effects and second-order effects. I suppose he is using terminology from business management, his area of primary expertise, or maybe from economics, an area of secondary expertise.

I’m not sure how this might relate to conservatism and liberalism, but I immediately saw a connection to the distinction between Confucianism and Taoism. Jesus is infinitely closer to being a Taoist than to being a Confucian. There are two quotes from the Tao Te Ching that reminded me of this first order idea:

If powerful men and women
could remain centered in the Tao,
all things would be in harmony.
The world would become a paradise.
All people would be at peace,
and the law would be written in their hearts.

In this first quote, what is described is the person embodying the first order principle. Jesus didn’t seek to enforce his own beliefs, values and worldview. Jesus, whether or not he was the Christ, was not a Christian and wasn’t seeking to advocate for a Christian moral order, much less a conservative social order. And the second quote:

The Master doesn’t try to be powerful;
thus he is truly powerful.
The ordinary man keeps reaching for power;
thus he never has enough.

The Master does nothing,
yet he leaves nothing undone.
The ordinary man is always doing things,
yet many more are left to be done.

The kind man does something,
yet something remains undone.
The just man does something,
and leaves many things to be done.
The moral man does something,
and when no one responds
he rolls up his sleeves and uses force.

When the Tao is lost, there is goodness.
When goodness is lost, there is morality.
When morality is lost, there is ritual.
Ritual is the husk of true faith,
the beginning of chaos.

Therefore the Master concerns himself
with the depths and not the surface,
with the fruit and not the flower.
He has no will of his own.
He dwells in reality,
and lets all illusions go.

This describes the first order type as opposed to the second order type.

A Confucian is a particular type of conservative which is why Chinese Communism being based on Confucianism always has had a conservative hierarchical social order with a conservative moral order. The Chinese Communists, like the Soviet Union Communists, were illiberal and anti-liberal to the extreme in being against free thought and freedom of choice, against intellectuals and artists, against homosexuals and other perceived deviants. I don’t know that the Taoist position was the polar opposite of liberalism, but it certainly wasn’t against liberalism. Taoists believed that order didn’t need to be enforced.

This could be fit into one aspect of conservatism and liberalism. Conservatives believe individuals will fail if not for external social order. Liberals believe individuals are inherently good or otherwise have great potential, although not necessarily the utopian perfectionism that conservatives fear in their worst nightmares.

I was struggling to fit all these ideas together. I intuit a resonance among them, but I’m far from certain. I sense there is a very powerful reason for why the conservative mind can so easily overlook this first order way of thinking. The powerful reason I suspect ties into empathy somehow. A larger sense of empathy is not necessary for Confucianism. Like American conservatives, Confucians limited empathy to the group, especially in terms of basing the social order on the family. Also, American and Confucian conservatives love ritual as symbolic expression and public enactment of social order.

Empathy, specifically in its fullest manifestation, is like a solvent to thick boundaries. It loosens the bonds and lets loose what was bounded. Taoism is about flow. But Taoism doesn’t oppose Confucianism in the way I hypothesize liberalism doesn’t oppose conservatism. Taoists understand that, even in flowing, boundaries are necessary. Taoists want balance, similar to how liberals want inclusion. It’s BOTH Yin AND Yang, not EITHER Yin OR Yang.

Empathy is a strange thing. I don’t fully understand it and I’m sure I never will. Nonetheless, I value it and aspire toward it.

That is the important part, in my mind and heart. Just to care, to know it all matters, that each and every person matters. Empathy is the very thing that allows us to, in the end, see us all as humans and as equals. We ultimately aren’t liberals and conservatives. We are immense, if not infinite, potential.

Despite my dysfunction, despite the dysfunction of others, despite the dysfunction of all of society, there is something fundamentally worthy and good within humanity and within the world. That is what I’d like to believe. that is what I choose to believe.

That is my moral vision.

11 thoughts on “What Is Empathy? And What Good Is It?

  1. What a great collection of ideas. I love the way you connect them, in some cases anticipating what my own comments might be. It’s such a temptation to engage in wordplay, but do you really believe that you can share empathy through writing?

    I know you’ve mentioned that there were times when you “put down the books” and the same goes for me. During the times of greatest empathy for me (Oneness with God, Satori, Being in Nature), words, discussion, thinking about my state of mind were all distractions; very unnecessary, probably counterproductive. Empathy is a state of being; in Zen, in Taoism, in Christianity, I believe you know that analysis is not needed.

    In my experience, for getting “there”, yes, you need will and logic and effort. If you were an extremely skeptical and logical person, as I was, it also helps to have someone, a teacher, or God, who can sew a few seeds of empathy to get the wheel turning and your self-doubt and confusion (in your pat, logical, judgemental world) started on the path to change. And afterwards, perhaps, you must/will come back to the world of words and doing, and how to integrate empathy into your practical life is a productive topic for examination.

    This is my experience, but in some ways, (and I’m the only one that can speculate on this), I believe myself to be a failure. I believe God gave me what I needed to find Oneness, and I did. But then, instead of choosing to stay in this state of grace, I allowed myself (was tempted?) back into the world of words and argument, and (worst of all) politics. I know that this is what happened to me – that discussion and analysis was/is detrimental to empathy. That’s just my experience. I would love to hear of someone having a different one.

    I often think of the Ox-herding Pictures which are part of the mythology of Zen. In them, the beginner works to acheive enlightenment, and then, afterwards, he “rides the Ox” back to the mundane world and presumably practices his wisdom in his everyday life. But I sometimes wonder if this isn’t just a tale of falure, like mine? I know that in my own rather brief state of satori, I couldn’t read Alan Watts or D.T. Suzuki; with due respect I believed that their very efforts to “explain” Zen were evidence that they were at best still on the path to enlightenment. Can you tell me that in your own experience, when you were at one with the world, did you not just want to just sit, and greet every new experience that the universe provided in that way? To put it another way, once having attained a different empathic method of perception, why go back to analysis and interpretation using words? Forever after, don’t you long for the expereince of immediate connection that empathic being unlocks, so that words and description and analysis seem very pale in comparison?

    I think you and your father can talk about the Bible and it’s interpretation (and politics) for a long time without getting close to Jesus’ true message. Empathy is God’s Love (Agape) which is a gift that flows through us and we can use it, like a new pair of eyes, to see all of the universe the way God sees it, or, at least as near an approximation as we can achieve, being human. Compared to this words are just a tool evolved by an inferior human brain which brings the world down to our level, so that we can use and manipulate it according to our needs and wishes.

    But has any human ever managed to stay in a state of grace, after once attaining it? I think this question is at the heart of why so many mystics turn to suicide. Speaking for myself, and perhaps this is where a good dose of practical worldliness would be of benefit, I would much rather I had died while enlightened than struggle on with only the memory, and faced with the constant failure to connect on a deeper level that I experience now that words have replaced God’s love as a source of empathy for me.

    • This kind of collection of ideas is what I call a thought-web. It is a few steps above mind-vomit. My noble aspiration isn’t so much to make connections, but to discover useful and meaningful relationships. Like the biosphere, the noosphere is an ecosystem. That is my INFP extraverted intuition speaking.

      Is empathy possible through writing?

      Without meeting in person, non-verbal cues are absent which puts a major crimp in affective empathy. Cognitive empathy could be crimped as well, but some speculate that reading can help people develop Theory of Mind.

      The rise of the popularity of the first person novel has been connected to empathy. A novel teaches someone to imagine in great detail what it feels like to be another person. It builds a cognitive repertoire of psychological understanding similar to growing up in a multicultural environment. As you may recall, I’ve often referred to research showing people who grow up in multicultural environents tend to become socially liberal as adults.

      Those were some of the other ideas in my thought-web that didn’t make it into the post.

      • I like your thought-web approach very much. This is what attracted me to follow your blog when I first discovered it. To me, an interesting comparison exists between this style of thinking and the “being” of empathy. It seems to me that when you attempt to describe empathy in words, you are in effect reaching out with your mind and trying to take a snapshot of an ongoing state of being in which there are no discreet elements of time by which to mark changes. It is just flow, the flowing, the timelessness are essential properties which are lost, when you make the attempt to capture them. The resulting thought-web is an attractive picture, a work of mind, interesting for us to grasp and manipulate, and being a very uniquely human thing, we love to play with them in the way that other animals are attracted to shiny objects. However, empathy itself has since moved on. Perhaps this inability to flow with empathy is what separates us from “the Gods”? Maybe we are evolving this capacity? The paradox seems to be that the forces that don’t value empathy are creating an environment in which evolution towards empathic being is becoming increasingly unlikely. A la Maslow’s ladder of needs, those who are inclined to be empathic are being marginalized socially and economically and are too busy trying to stay alive to develop their “finer” selves. Still, if this process continues, I can imagine an “Aikido moment” in which many (like your father, perhaps) who formerly disdained empathy, are suddenly thrust down among the lowly, and this breaking of the artificial barriers between “us” and “them” and the experience of empathy which arises. may serve as the seed for them to begin their own transformation, and this may snowball into the “tipping point” for our whole species. It could be happening right now.

      • It has just occurred to me that music is a kind of like a “digital” sampling of the analog flow of empathy. The musician provides one with a series of discrete thought-webs hung upon a flowing pattern. It’s not empathy exactly, but a facsimile of it that is uniquely tailored to be attractive to the human mind. Perhaps that’s why, in my own world which is lacking more and more in true empathy, I escape into music.

    • I like the general idea of the Tao. There is the underlying seeking of balance and harmony in apparent opposites. Each side flows into one another and contains an element of the other.

      That is how I think of empathy and analysis. There is a natural inclination to suppress one while using the other. It is atypical to use the two together, especially using them effectively, but most worthy things in life are atypical. Extreme empathy without analysis can be as dangerous and immoral as the opposite because without analysis one is ripe for manipulation.

      Yes, empathy doesn’t need analysis. Then again, analysis doesn’t need empathy. But both work better when they aren’t disconnected from the other, so it seems to me. Psychological disconnection always seems like a bad idea. This is what leads to compartmentalization and dissociation. Imbalanced people can be problematic for themselves and others. I’m sure you understand this kind of thing.

      There is a name for people who attain mystical or altered states without ever returning to the normal world. They are called bliss-ninnies. They are lost to us mere mortals.

      Any state, when taken to the extreme, is exclusive of all other states. So, a bliss-ninny has no use or comprehension of anything besides their state of bliss or whatever it is. The opposite is true. Someone who has never experienced a mystical or altered state has no use or comprehension of anything besides what they consider their normal state.

      This is an issue we all deal with to greater and lesser degrees. I’d less connect empathy to a specific state of mind, though. I see empathy as being what allows the bridging of states of minds for it is what allows us to understand the minds of others. This goes back to my idea that Taoism isn’t the opposite of Confucianism and liberalism isn’t the opposite of conservatism. Maybe empathy ultimately isn’t the opposite of analysis. Maybe?

  2. “Bliss-ninnie”; I’ve never hear that before. What a mean, pejorative expression. A very judgemental, analytical word that seeks to destroy empathy. But it fails, because it causes me to empathize with you, having once felt exactly that way myself. Once again, we act as our own metaphor.

    • I still retain some memory of the experience I had when I was in my own version of the bliss-ninny state. For me it wasn’t bliss, but the same basic idea. It was such an all-encompassing state that I would more than willingly have remained in it forever, if such were possible or if such were my fate.

      That is what makes a bliss-ninny what they are. The state of mind for the bliss-ninny is their entire reality. This is neither good nor bad, in an objective (i.e., analytical) sense. It simply is what it is.

      Anyway, not knowing how to be a permanent bliss-ninny, I take the path of the Tao. But for those so able to remain eternal bliss-ninnies, I say more power to them.

    • I always return to my grandmother’s saying: Everyone is doing the best for where they are. However, I put a more fatalist spin to it. I’d make two points based on my fatalism.

      First, we can’t help but be who we are and where we are. We simply are.

      Second, every state of being makes perfect sense within that state of being. People may speak of wanting to be different, but we don’t know how to be otherwise. Our respective ways of being make perfect sense, whether or no we like the sense that they make.

      With these two combined, states of mind are powerfully self-reinforcing. They are reality tunnels. Some are more pleasant and/or more expansive, but the mechanism is basically the same.

      I nonetheless hold hope for something more. My way of being and state of mind is limited. I honestly can’t say uch about my own prior odd experiences. They were what they were. They were there and then then they weren’t. For what reason I know not.

    • @ethicalanimals – It’s getting close to a year since you left that comment. You haven’t been back since.

      Your comment, at the time and still now, feels strange. We seemed to have been getting along just fine in many separate discussions, including emails, and then this response comes out of the blue. But maybe it shouldn’t feel strange.

      I remember our first discussion. I perceived you as acting defensive as if yo were afraid I’d attack you and whatever position you were taking. I had no intenton to attack you and explained that to you. You then explained to me that you are normally in defensive mode. Apparently, that is a problem. Both oin our first and last interaction, you assumed I was attacking you or might attakck which in turn assumes I wanted to attack you.

      You seem to read into situations a lot and project onto people what you fear. This goes for your interpretation of bliss-ninnie as well. It is just a word. It isn’t nor did I intend it to be mean, pejorative, judgmental, analytical, or seeking to destroy empathy. I just thought it an amusing word and meant nothing serious by it. If my use of that word caused you to empathize with me, you wouldn’t have responded that way. You seemed to have confused empathy with projection.

      Oddly, I also have a sense of empathizing with you. People like you and I are highly sensitive with very active imaginations and strong senses of intuition, but sometimes our minds get the better of us.

      I don’t recall if we ever talked about Myers-Briggs. I’ve noted before (in a post about being judgmental) that INFPs are particularly prone to this kind of thing. Our sense of understanding others can feel so compelling to us that it can close us down instead of opening us up to the other person. Those highly capable in empathy can become overly confident in their ability. Also, with INFPs, there is the danger of getting “in the grip” of inferior Te which can cause, among other things, to project one’s own analytical side onto others.

      When I talk about such things, I’m referring to my own experience. It is only to that extent that maybe I can empathize with you, but that is far fom saying I truly understand you. I do know from our many long discussions that you were under a lot of stress. Stress sucks. And stress often doesn’t bring out the best in us. I do understand that. I’m just sad that our friendship ended on such a sour note. I’d hate to think that I in any way contributed to your stress, even if unintentionally.

      Anyway, I would like to explain my use of the word “bliss-ninnie”. I came across it from reading about meditation and alternatie states of mind. It is a purely descriptive word, not meant to be mean or analytical.

      The word obviously doesn’t apply to you for bliss-ninnie isn’t usually a temporary state. The word describes someone fully stuck in a state of being so blissed out that they are entirely unaware of the world, unaware of other people, and completely unable to function in the most basic ways. When someone is like this, they literally need someone to change their diapers for it’s as if they’ve become mentally/emotionally detached from their own body.

      This sometimes happens to people who’ve meditated a lot. Noone knows why it happens. Just something clicks on and sometimes it never clicks back off again. If that happens, it becomes a permanent and continuous state of ecstasy. It’s not a bad fate, as long as there are people willing to take care of you. I’m cerainly not judging. As someone who has had severe depression for most of my life, such a state sounds quite attractive.

      I’ve mentionedmy own experiences with meditation. I once meditated so much over an extended period of time that a truly overwhelming state of mind took hold. It wasn’t bliss, but I nonetheless felt it’s pull. It felt like it could’ve swallowed me whole and left nothing behind.

      For anyone who has had these kind of meditative experiences, they can’t be dismissed or analyzed away. They remind us that their are vast unknown regions of our own psyche. So, I hope you understand that I was not and am not dismissing your experience, not mean-spiritedly judging you, not heartlessly analyzing, not seeking to destroy empathy. Quite the contrary.

      In that light, I hope you’ll see this message. I apologize for any wrong you perceived I did against you. I apologize for not communicating myself well, for using a word that felt cruel to you.

  3. I have a related smaller thought-web that fits into this larger thought-web about empathy.

    Empathy, at least affective empathy, is closely intertwined with suffering. Of course, empathy isn’t just about suffering for all varieties of experience is involved. But suffering holds a special place, as Buddhists and many others have noted.

    It is affective empathy that causes empathic distress. This is what autistics have in spades and sociopaths lack. I’ve speculated that affective empathy might be a key component in what distinguishes liberals from conservatives.

    Liberal-mindedness is about thin boundaries. This allows the experience of others to bleed over into one’s own experience. One takes on the distress and suffering of others. This doesn’t happen with someone who has strong thick boundaries which is correlated with conservatism.

    Thick-boundaried conservative-mindedness is about control, both self-control and social control. Control is ultimately about the ability to order the world and enforce order. This is why conservatives admire, respect and support such things as the police and the military, including (according to the polls) being the last Americans to support such things as the Iraq War and Gitmo.

    Thin-boundaried liberal-mindedness is more comfortable with lack of control. This is why tolerance for cognitive dissonance is correlated with liberalism. This is why liberals have been shown to be more accepting of the idea of slapping their own father. Also, this is why liberals are more prone to do risky things and experiment which leads to higher rates of drug addiction and alcoholism.

    Being thin-boundaried seems more difficult, at least in this society, than being thick-boundaried.

    Take a psychopath or sociopath as an example of extreme thick boundaries. Most psycho/sociopaths appear perfectly normal to the outside world. They simply don’t feel what others feel, but most learn how to act normal and play by the rules. In fact, research has shown that sociopathic traits and behavior are more common among those successful in positions of power and authority.

    Thin boundaries have their advantages, but it certainly doesn’t tend to lead to this kind of success in our society. Research has found this is true even in areas that are a closer match for the abilities and talents of thin boundary types. For example, artist students on average have thinner boundaries. However, well established artists (i.e., successful artists) have normal boundary scores. So, thin boundaries attract people to art and at the same time thin boundaries make it difficult to gain success as artists in our society.

    There are a lot of problems that correspond with thin boundaries. There are a number of psychiatric disorders correlated with thin boundaries. A major issue that Ernest Hartmann discovered was that thin boundary types are prone to nightmares. The explanation he came to for this is that this is because of the thin boundaries such people have between waking and dreaming. A thin boundary person is, in common parlance, thin skinned. They are sensitive and prone to odd experiences (paranormal, spiritual, mystical, etc). This probably relates to people stop attending church as often after having spiritual/mystical experiences. Churches are structured institutions built by and for thick boundary types.

    Thin boundaries, empathy and suffering are all closely interconnected. This is why Shamanic initiations in indigenous societies often begin with suffering that has broken down boundaries, especially when an initiate is young. A near death experience is common, such as from illness. Shamans are in the business of boundary crossing and so they need to develop thin boundaries from a young age or else have a traumatic experience at some point to break down already developed thicker boundaries.

    This is why I see it as key that a conservative like my dad hasn’t experienced much suffering. Still, suffering doesn’t inevitably lead to thinner boundaries and empathy. The opposite can happen when people harden themselves to suffering and they become cold. It’s the same reason why not all suffering leads to people becoming shamans. Thin boundaries are risky in that there is a strong random quality to what results. By their nature, thin boundaries can’t be controlled for if they could be controlled then they would be thick boundaries instead.

    It’s tough to have thin boundaries, but it is a necessary aspect of human psychology and those with it play a necessary role within society. The same goes for thick boundaries. I defend thin boundaries because I have thin boundaries and live in a society that doesn’t overly value people like me. It doesn’t need to be that way. Thick boundary types need not see thin boundary types as the enemy, but that is the nature of thick boundaries to see thin boundaries as a threat.

    If we had a society that valued thin boundaries (along with liberalism and empathy), then thin boundary types would less likely manifest dysfunctional behavior. So much of the suffering in our society doesn’t happen on accident. It is created by the conditions of our society, often intentionally as a punishment in this Social Darwinian ‘meritocracy’ and rule-bound police state. If you smoked pot or something similar like a thin boundary type is wont to do, you deserve to be fired, lose your kids and be imprisoned for decades. Now, that is suffering.

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