Let us forge a question. Is empathy a true moral signpost? And a second question to follow that one…Is Empathy a Primal tool to manipulate?
Now I understand that both those questions have interlaced within them a stream of emotion-provoking, incendiary thoughts that raise the collective eyebrows. But for this exercise let us kick this can down the metal roof and see if the noise becomes over-bearing?
“Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other being's frame of reference.” This definition is the hallmark of all things good and just. So how can something so good have another edge to it? After all, feeling the distress of someone that evokes a desire of compassion is sacrosanct in the virtue of being human. Isn’t it? We all aspire to be good people. We all aspire to do good. We imagine ourselves to be virtuous, moral and compassionate human beings. What then?
Ok enough of Tantalus’s tentacles tugging at your sleeves. Let me get to the core of this duality issue.
True empathy evokes compassion, yes, that is true. But is too much of it just too much? That is the question worth looking into. Or putting it mildly is too much of a good thing bad? And the answer is a possibly yes!
Let us take the healthcare environment for just a minute. Evoking empathy has fueled the FDA into granting approvals of many biological medications that have minimal benefit but a moderate amount of risk. The approvals are based on petitions cramped with thousands of signatures signed willingly by the many, touched by a heart-rending story of one.
This “Made to Stick” format is a harbinger of the empathic culture that does not want to be seen callous by not signing the petition. And by signing the petition he or she shows the virtuous self to all others who have and have not signed. Underneath it all is the serpent of risk that raises its ugly head when the drug is put towards human use. Yet those harrowing stories of complications and even death are waylaid by the goodness to fit in this comfortable skin of false virtue. Many Adverse Events (AE) later as the true signal of truth becomes obvious, the drug is quietly withdrawn from the market. Of course there are many a manager in the middle that see to it that the drug reaches its consumer for they reap enormous benefits under the guise of Pharmacy Business Managers or PBM…but that is another story for another time. Recently we were made aware by the policy wonks, who decided that “Pain” should be granted the designation as a “5th Vital Sign.” Since all physicians were lambasted as not “caring” by not adhering to “pain prevention” principles, they out of 'goodness" started writing opioids for the patients. Thus, began the “Opioid crisis!” Some individuals became addicted and used the “5th Vital Sign” to get what they craved. Fault and finger-pointing notwithstanding, the crisis is real and it falls heavily at the feet of the “disembodied empathic few policy wonks.”
A simpler concept to understand is of a frail elderly person confined to his home because of age by his well-meaning care-givers. “No. no you must not do that and no, no you must not do this,” they cry. All the while the muscles lack the exercise and the brain lacks the motivation and suddenly they who could have had some liberty of thought and action are relegated to a heap of burden. Empathically downed by the rigors of “do good.” Love is misapplied when it denies the liberty and freedom of another. A love does not imprison the body and the mind to the demands of good wishes. It allows freedom to express and allows for adventure so the soul does not suffocate and wither.
Empathy can also harm a child where every demand is met. Every wish is granted and every action is met with ovation. That child’s soul is crafted in the perplexing vexation of tumult for the rest of her or his life. As he or she grows, all demands that aren’t met, become a source of torment and a tantrum. Entitlement breeds, nay emboldens a tyrant who rants and raves for “no good reasons.” Perhaps too much early is too little, late. Perhaps, for these so enabled, reality is a dystopian environment away from the carefully crafted utopia.
So, is empathy a double-edged sword? I think too much is! Compassion on the other hand is indeed the right sentiment. To help those down on their luck, health and wealth. A false compassion is akin to excess empathy. And from such empathic disguise come the demands of tyrants. Lest it be forgot, empathy can be used as a primal tool for self-serving public figures as well. Be very careful when you hear the words “For the Public Good.” There is much sinister in that.
Should we therefore pull out this signpost and abjure empathy? No, not really! We should instead be careful in how we blow on empathy’s trumpets. Misusing empathy, as those vested heavily in psychopathology do, is immoral at best and an unjust dispensation of subliminal influence to manipulate and/or marginalize. It is important not to be pulled into the masquerade of this form of willfully blind passion. Empathy should not be made as catch-all term for human folly and failing.
To apprehend the real inherent virtue of the empathic emotion rather than one invoked by journalistic kaleidoscopic force du jour of the pseudo-intellectual, who aims to gain from it, carries with it the art of critical thinking.
Be compassionate towards others, rather than just “feel” for someone, and always know the difference.