I am in the parking lot of a shopping mall near my home and observe a car backing up and slightly scraping the automobile parked next to it. A thirtyish-looking man in a dark blue suit emerges from the offending vehicle, takes a business card out of his pocket, scribbles a note on the back, and puts it under the windshield of the damaged Toyota.
The act of honesty warms me, but I am also aware of being a little startled. It is the unexpectedness of it that startles. It is the same feeling I get when I witness an act of generosity ("You asked if I could give ten dollars to your charity? How about twenty?"), observe an act of considerateness ("You look pregnant and tired. Would you like my seat?"), spot an act of kindness between strangers ("You seem pale and about to faint. Can I help you?"), or experience an act of anticipation by another ("Sure, I can give you a ride to the airport. But how are you going to get back?") Simple acts, all of them. But extraordinary in their infrequency.
What motivated these people to act from their higher self, their self that encourages kindness and sensitivity to others?
To act morally, we must feel the thread that binds us to one another. The process must begin early. Psychologists universally emphasize the critical importance of an infant's experiencing a sustained, nurturing, secure attachment to an adult as a necessary precursor to becoming a caring human being.
We can be taught and inspired by the example of those around us. Rewards for moral behavior and punishment for transgressions have only fleeting impact, however. When the incentive is withdrawn, or the fear of retribution is removed, what's to keep us on the right path? Why be good when no one is watching?
Above all, what is required for me to be moral is my ability to truly empathize. I must understand your feelings, thoughts, and needs. I must be able to feel your pain. I must see the world through your eyes. I must feel secure enough in myself to extend my concern to you. I must appreciate you as worthy of my attention, simply and profoundly because you are a human being.
We call them gooks or slopeheads so we can kill them. With a clear conscience. I have to first dehumanize him so I can kill him without compunction. If he has intrinsic worth, how can I pull the trigger? Before I annihilate him, I must be certain he is not at all like me.
Using very different language, Anna Freud suggested that altruistic behavior, on the other hand, springs from the reverse process; that is, I unconsciously view you as similar to me and provide aid and comfort in order to vicariously gratify my own needs. Indeed, on a conscious level, how can I compassionately understand you if I am not a little like you?
If I am preoccupied with myself, if I feel a fundamental sense of deprivation, I can only offer "cheap empathy." A variation of the following encounter is familiar to all of us: You run into a neighbor or acquaintance at the grocery store. Judy asks, "So, how are things going?" Despite knowing that this was simply a polite question and one designed to elicit a reflexive and dishonest "Fine," you feel overwhelmed enough to be honest. "Frank just lost his job. My mother was diagnosed with cancer of the liver last week. It's a rough time." As you unveil your woes, Judy grimaces in concern and nods her head in a sympathetic manner. But for Judy, it's time to continue with her shopping. "I'm sorry to hear it. Let me know if there's anything I can do." Judy and her shopping cart disappear around the next aisle. You are left feeling just as alone in your travails as you were before the contact.
Indeed, Judy may have felt a flicker of distress. But she moves away from it as quickly as possible. She hurriedly departs because she is intent on calming herself.
When I truly empathize with you, I allow your experience to penetrate my psyche. I share some of your pain. I don't run from it.
While many women may feign empathy, most men are simply frightened of it. A classic and common example of men's unwillingness to empathize occurs when a wife attempts to speak with her husband about her fears or anxieties. Amanda says: "I'm feeling old. I know I'm only forty-five, but I'm feeling old. Bonnie and Andy don't need me anymore; they're teenagers, they're in their own world. Maybe I did it wrong. Fifteen years ago, I knew I wanted to be home for the kids while they were growing up. I feel too old to start a career. Maybe I made a mistake. What's my life now?" Charley responds: "Maybe you could take up some hobby like tennis."
Men are too frightened to identify with powerlessness, indecision, and anxiety. No wallowing allowed. None of that existential angst crap. Just do something about it. Take a pill. Take a tennis class. The old adage is true: Women want to talk, share, connect, be known, and know the other. Men want to fix it. Men want to avoid the specter of vulnerability.
How Do We Develop Empathy?
A nine-month-old, Marie, becomes alarmed when she sees her seven-year-old brother, Todd, crying. But she is not sure who is hurt because she cannot clearly distinguish between herself and her brother. Two months later, Marie observes Todd fall and hurt himself. To reduce her anxiety, Marie sucks her thumb vigorously and buries her head in her mother's lap. She is still unsure of who is really in pain.
A few months later, Marie becomes aware that Todd is, indeed, a separate person. (She has achieved what psychologists term "object permanence.") When Todd falls off his bicycle, Marie understands that, while Todd is injured, she is fine. Her distress is transformed from simple empathy with her injured brother to sympathetic concern for his condition. She now not only wants to calm herself, but she also hopes to relieve Todd's suffering. However, her overwhelming self-centeredness may still cause her to offer something that would soothe her, but not necessarily comfort Todd. Marie may fetch her security blanket for him.
By two or three, Marie will understand that people's needs differ. For the first time, she will make an effort to put herself in the other's place. When Todd is hurt, she will offer him her baseball cards because Todd sleeps with his baseball glove and watches the Dodgers any time he can. By five, Marie even understands that her six-year-old cousin, Harrison, who lives three thousand miles away, is a handicapped child with certain life limitations.
Marie was not only capable of empathizing at a very early age, she was also able to act in a caring fashion. When she was one, she obviously shared, helped, protected, and nurtured without any necessary prompting or praise. She "fed," groomed, caressed, and talked to her dolls and stuffed animals.
Marie's two-year-old sister, Samantha, always had a very different kind of temperament. From birth, Samantha was irritable and stubborn. When she observed Todd fall off his bicycle, she was curious about what had happened, but didn't run for her favorite blanket in order to ease his pain. On a couple of occasions, she simply remarked, "Todd was riding too fast. He shouldn't have done that." Individual temperament always affects our sensitivity to others.
Since empathy occupies the heart of morality, we have a stake in fostering it in all our children. How can we do that?
Let your child fail. We can love, encourage, and reassure our children, but we can't always protect them. Nor should we. When we shield our children from life's disappointments and cruelty, they will be ill-equipped to move through the world on their own. Sensitivity to the needs and feelings of others can only occur if a child has the normal range of upsetting experiences.
Provide your child contact with the less fortunate. Take your child to a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter. By providing aid to the needy, he can begin to empathize with those who have problems unlike his own.
Let your child help. Children growing up in cultures where they are assigned responsibility for taking care of siblings and other relatives (such as Kenya, Mexico, and the Philippines) are more likely to exhibit a range of helping behaviors than children who grow up in societies without those expectations (like the United States).
Take any opportunity to encourage your child to place himself in another's shoes. Help him try on different perspectives. Stretch his imaginative capacities. ("What do you think it would feel like to be Danny, right now?" "How do you think you would feel if your best friend decided to be best friends with another girl?")
Instead of trying to instill morality by teaching rules, help your child understand the emotional consequences of his behavior for others. When your child does something that is selfish, cruel, thoughtless, or contrary to what you had ordered, your tendency is to spontaneously explode: "How could you do that? Haven't I told you -- !" Part of your anger stems from a perception that your child has defied you, and you take his defiance personally ("I'll show you who's boss!"). You told him the first time, the second time, and even the third. You yell because you feel ineffectual. You scold out of a sense of desperation. You punish in order to "teach him a lesson."
But when you simply punish or express your disappointment, your child will focus on his resentment, anxiety, and the negative impact on his life, rather than on the sensibilities of those he has wronged.
Help your child feel good about himself. When we are feeling insecure, deprived, or unwanted, we become preoccupied with our own supposed deficiencies. Shifting our focus outward so we can empathize with another requires that we feel secure about our place in the world. I must feel loved before I can extend love to others.
We can foster self-esteem in our children on a daily basis. Try this brief assessment. Answer True or False to the following:
I hug my child a lot.
I frequently tell my child "I love you."
When my child says "I hate you," I don't simply react. Instead, I try to understand why he is so angry.
When my child talks to me, I stop what I'm doing and listen to him.
I give my child a lot more praise than criticism.
I am patient with my child.
I am able to control the frustrations in other parts of my life and not take them out on my child.
I help my child verbalize his feelings.
I am conscious of telling my child what I like about him.
Were you able to answer "True" to most of the statements?
Stretching Our Empathy
Martin Solomon, a thirty-eight-year-old orthopedic surgeon, has lost everything -- his home, his practice, his wife, and his children. He is a compulsive gambler. After twenty years of denial, he concluded it is time to look at himself. He wonders if I can help him. "Can you possibly know what it's like?" he asks desperately.
Fiona Walsh, a twenty-nine-year-old associate in a public relations firm, was the victim of incest. From the ages of nine until twelve, her father crept into her darkened bedroom on a nightly basis, fondling her in the name of love. Fiona's inability to allow physical or emotional intimacy drove her to psychotherapy. She is uncertain about whether a man, and one who had never experienced the ultimate violation, can relate to her. "I don't know if you can imagine what it felt like," she whispers despairingly.
Indeed, I could not possibly have experienced the range of problems that have been presented to me over my twenty-five years of practicing as a clinical psychologist. No, I have never been a compulsive gambler. But I have known the feeling of being out of control, hurtling down a self-destructive path, and thinking, "I just can't help myself. I don't want to help myself." I have known the shame and weakness of promising myself and others that I will never do that again, and promptly breaking my word because of a seemingly uncontrollable impulse. I have known the rush of excitement and the defeating confrontation with failure. I have known the sadness of loss.
No, I was never molested as a child. But I have known the pain of betrayal by someone I had implicitly trusted. I have experienced the powerlessness of being physically controlled by a stronger presence. I have grappled with confusion and anxiety when I have not been clear about whose fault it was when something horrible happened.
As I said in the Introduction, genuine empathy requires effort. When someone speaks of an incident that you have never known, think of the feelings that might accompany such an episode. Then, remember an event in your own life that produced similar reactions. We understand another best when we can relate a personal circumstance that seems parallel. We also feel closer to those we perceive to be similar to ourselves.
Because we are cut of the same human cloth, we can empathize with the experience of others despite their apparent foreign nature. Few of us go through life without brushing against hopelessness, fear, rejection, betrayal, powerlessness, insensitivity, shame, or despair. Most of us have had at least a fleeting thought of suicide somewhere along the line. No, it is not difficult to empathize with another whose problem seems so different from any we have encountered. None of us has had the exact experience of another. Nevertheless, we can empathize if we stretch our imagination to find our human common ground.
When We Don't Empathize
Twenty-three-year-old Bernard Watson is a burglar. He robs houses for a living. When told that he had stolen an irreplaceable gold pocket watch that had been passed down through five generations to his victim, he offered: I can't feel bad for him. Tough luck. He shoulda had his house locked better. He shoulda had an alarm system that really worked. He made it so easy, it was pathetic."
This is how twenty-one-year-old Wiley Thornton explained why he had raped three teenage girls the previous year. "Doc, you should have seen what they were wearing. Those tight sweaters, those miniskirts. They're showing off what they got. Why do you think they were struttin' their stuff? They want it. They can't come right out and say it 'cause girls aren't supposed to want it. But they do. You can't tell me otherwise. So, you see, it was what they call 'consensual.' They wanted it as bad as I did."
Bernard Watson and Wiley Thornton have never developed the concept of a "responsible self." That is, they do not feel responsible for the consequences of their actions for others. Even you and I supress any sympathy for the victim when we inflict pain. And, because we must maintain a positive self-image, we further hold the victim responsible for his ill-fortune. When you cheat me out of something that is rightfully mine, you remind yourself of how I treated you unfairly two months ago.
For many of us, the activation of our empathic potential is often superficial and arbitrary. You may have noticed that:
You are more likely to empathize when you like the other person.
You are more likely to empathize when you want the other person to like you.
You are more likely to empathize when you view the other person's reaction as legitimate. You extend much less sympathy and understanding for those you blithely label "neurotic."
You are more likely to empathize when you perceive the other person's needs to be similar to your own.
You are more likely to empathize with the other person if you have experienced similar difficulties.
You are more likely to empathize when you want to influence or manipulate another.
Yes, we tend to pick and choose, at our convenience.
The sentiment is absolutely primitive. Even the very young feel the sting of injustice. Children have acute moral sensibilities. We have all witnessed a child's spontaneous expressions of hurt and anger when he perceives injustice has been done to him. My five year-old, Nathan, rushes into the kitchen excitedly to show me the Super-Soaker squirt gun his mother bought him that day. He is beaming. As he enters the room, he spies his sister eating chocolate-chip ice cream and reflexively asks, "Can I have some ice cream, too?" I tell him, "No, you had a tummyache this afternoon." Instant wailing. He stomps out of the kitchen, crying uncontrollably, his new toy forgotten on the kitchen table.
Whether you are five or forty-five, you have exclaimed, "That's not fair!" In our bleaker moments, the singular easily becomes the universal: "Life's not fair!" But how do we learn what's fair?
As young as two years of age, children play and learn about morality. As children give and receive toys, turns, and favors, they encounter others' expectations of justice. The incentive to abide by rules of fairness is a powerful one: Children want to play with other children. Children want friends, and sharing is the key to social acceptance.
At the neighborhood playground, my then fourteen-month-old son, Nathan, was getting bored playing by himself in the sand. He took his firetruck, shovel, and pail over to another boy, stretched out his hand, and mutely offered his possessions to share. Nathan had already learned the admission ticket to friendship.
Parents may prod, order, bribe, or cajole, but a child's primary reason for cooperative play is his desire for acceptance. Most of the time when children play, adults are not around. It is through negotiation and acts of generosity that we learn our first lessons about fairness. We also learn that getting along often means making deals, and sometimes, it requires simply giving in. As a child plays with others, he experiences relationships of mutual respect. He sees his playmate, even his opponent, as someone like himself.
Prior to his extensive exposure with peers at play, a child only has respect for adult authority. Slowly, with his friends, he learns that he must extend that respect to all. Rules for play evolve by consensual agreement with the other boys and girls. Eventually, the child realizes that fairness is a principle that applies in every relationship. It is through games and play, not parental edicts, that we learn about fairness. Our mature notions of morality are born in these early ethical interactions. We learn that justice is based on reciprocal consideration, and not on the use of superior power.
Our idea of justice evolves quickly. During preschool, a child shares when and with whom he wants. Sharing need not extend, for example beyond a favorite friend or preferred group (such as boys or girls). But by the fourth year, a child has internalized the notion that he has an obligation to share his possessions with others on occasion. (Note: He may not be quite as generous with his favorite toys as with other property.) By the time he begins elementary school, a child has firmly learned three criteria for fairness: equality (ensuring that everyone is treated identically), merit (extra rewards are due for exceptional performance), and benevolence (those with special handicaps should be given special consideration).
Over the course of many years and many thousands of encounters with his peers, a child's understanding of justice deepens. This understanding can manifest considerable flexibility as one applies different principles of justice to fit one's interests. For example, the oldest child may decide she gets the biggest slice of cake because she is the oldest, but not necessarily more household chores than her younger siblings. The important point, however, is that the child knows he must appeal to some standard of justice in order to advance his position and resolve competing claims.
Sibling relationships provide other powerful lessons in fairness. My twelve-year-old daughter, Rachel, yells: "You never criticize Sarah. Why do you always pick on me?" My eight-year-old daughter, Sarah, screams: "Why do I have to share everything with Nathan?" My five-year-old son, Nathan, cries: "Why do I have to let her play with my new toy? She doesn't let me play with hers!" My children are fighting for their rights, asking questions designed to test the parameters of justice and always searching for telltale answers to "Who do Mommy and Daddy love the most?"
While we no longer stomp our feet in outrage, the sense of "That's not fair!" stays with us into adulthood. At forty-nine, I am still assessing if I have gotten my fair share. I have smart, sensitive, healthy children. I have a warm, supportive, loving wife. I have work that allows me to feel productive and useful. I can afford a nice lifestyle. So, why do I find myself thinking:
Why is that gorgeous woman with him and not me?
Why can't I have a job as interesting as his?
Why don't I make as much money as he does?
"That's not fair!" is what I feel. I feel it because my primitive sense of justice invokes the lesson I learned when my innocence was in full bloom: He doesn't deserve it more than I do. In my weaker moments, my moments of frustration and perceived deprivation, that five-year-old boy lurking in a corner of my forty-nine-year-old body cries out, "It's not fair!" Unfortunately, we tend to fix our gaze on those who seem to have more than we do and not less. And at those times, of course, we fail to appreciate our own good fortune.
Guilt Can Help
Since the 1960s, guilt has gotten a bad rap, and it is my profession that is, perhaps, mostly to blame. Caught up in the spirit of antipathy to authority, many psychotherapists declared should a dirty word. Should inhibited expression and tied the person to dictates emanating from outside of oneself We were exhorted to "Be true to yourself." Self became the operative word.
To be sure, guilt is often unwarranted. In 1974, my father died of a massive heart attack at the age of fifty-seven. Two weeks before he died, I flew in to New York to visit him and my mother (they were divorced at the time). He looked bad to me. His normally cherub face was gray, almost ashen. Usually physically robust and vigorous, he uncharacteristically admitted to me, "I haven't felt good lately."
Have you been to the doctor?" I asked.
"Yeah, I saw Dr. Bitterman," he answered. "He said I'm okay."
And, with all the self-absorption of a twenty-five-year-old, I dropped it.
After I received the fateful call, I berated myself I should have pushed more. I should have insisted he see another physician. Dr. Bitterman had been our family doctor for twelve years when we lived in Brooklyn. His idea of a complete physical was to weigh you, put a thermometer in your mouth, and measure your blood pressure. The visit would last an average of five minutes. I chastened myself for years. When I would think about what I had not done, shivers would pulsate down my spine. I was so self-centered. Even when it came to the life of my father.
Guilt is not helpful when it stems from things that are truly not your fault.
Today, Abraham Pasternak is a seventy-four-year-old retired businessman, living in an affluent suburb of Detroit. But fifty-three years ago, he lived in a different place. "I arrived at Auschwitz on a transport from Hungary with my parents and four brothers. That very same day there were so many things that happened to us. We really couldn't sort them out, and I'm still trying to sort out that day.... My parents were sent to the left [to their death] and meand my two older brothers and a younger brother were sent to the right. I told my little kid brother, I said to him, 'Solly, gey tsu Tate un Mame' [Go to Poppa and Momma]. And like a little kid, he followed....He did. Little did I know that I sent him to the crematorium. I am...I feel like I killed him. My [older] brother, who lives now in New York...every time when we see each otherhe talks about him. And he says, 'No, I am responsible, because I said that same thing to you. And it's been bothering me too.' I've been thinking whether he reached my mother and father, and that he did reach my mother and father. He probably told them, he said, 'Avrum hot mir gezugt, dos ikh zol geyn mit aykh [Abraham said I should go with you].' I wonder what my mother and father were thinking, especially when they were all...when they all went into the crematorium [that is, the gas chamber]. I can't get, it out of my head. It hurts me, it bothers me, and I don't know what to do."
Obviously, it is not simply life and death issues that generate unwarranted guilt. A few years ago, my friend Stan recommended that I buy a stock. He had a "hot tip." Stan had already bought several thousand shares and suggested it would be good if I got in on the run-up. Although I don't play the stock market, I couldn't resist the opportunity. After a very brief positive move, the stock crashed, and I lost everything. "I feel terrible about having gotten you into it," Stan has reiterated on several occasions. My response has always been, "Don't be ridiculous. I'm a big boy. I chose to take the risk. Nobody forced me to."
Guilt is not helpful when the hurtful act was not foreseeable.
One day, a colleague popped her head into my office. "Aaron, do you have a minute?"
"Sure," I replied.
"I just ran into Bob Grant, and he was upset," she continued. "He said you had scheduled a meeting with him a long time ago for yesterday, and when he came by, you barely acknowledged him and immediately rushed out of your office. He's very anxious about applying to graduate school and really wanted to talk with you about it."
My heart sank. Yesterday had been one of those pressure-filled nightmares. I had forgotten to closely check my calendar, was preoccupied with ten things I had to get done in the next hour after Bob's arrival, and had not even taken the time to inquire patiently why he was standing at my office door. I felt awful, but not guilty.
Guilt is not helpful when you have unintentionally hurt or neglected someone. (However, an apology is in order.)
Eighteen years ago, Margaret, then twenty-four, and Jim, twenty-six, were in love and living together. Margaret was immersed in her second year of a sociology doctoral program, and Jim was a local television reporter. After only two years on the job, Jim received an offer to anchor a newscast in a larger market, and Margaret's life began a predictable trajectory: "I quit the doctoral program even "though I loved it. The last twenty or so years I've been following Jim from station to station and city to city. Every time I would start to build a life for myself, we had to move. When the kids got older and were in school, several interesting job offers came my way. I thought about them, but Jim said we didn't need the additional income and he would prefer it if I was home when the kids got back from school every day. it sounded right to me....So much of my life has been about just taking care of everyone else.
"I never questioned having to uproot myself so much for Jim's work. His career always came first....One time, I even started a great job at an advertising agency. I was so excited. I felt alive again, challenged. And then, Jim got a better offer. He was sure I could find something I liked in Los Angeles, but this was a career move that would only come along once in a lifetime, he said. He was always so persuasive."
Margaret's life of deferring to others and feeling guilty about having needs of her own began early. With both of her parents full-time attorneys, and as the oldest of three children, she was expected to be the dutiful daughter and tend to her younger sister and brother. When Margaret was fifteen, her mother suffered a disabling stroke. During those years that should have been filled with friendships, after-school activities, and parties, Margaret was forced to stay close to home. Her impulse to insist, "But what about my life?" was further squelched by the sight of her mother's contorted face and body.It's not that Margaret didn't receive recognition for her sacrifices. Her parents always bragged about what a good, helpful girl she was, about how Margaret "always put others first." Unfortunately, while Margaret was being responsible and generous, she lost herself. She lost her capacity to articulate her needs. She lost her sense of entitlement.
Guilt is not helpful when it stifles your ability to assert, "I'm a person, too. "
Too often, people go overboard in their self-punishment. But guilt can be helpful as well.
The mere fact that you can feel guilt is testimony to your ability to empathize. One must first realize what one did (or failed to do) to another in order to feel guilt's pangs. Good guilt can provide a moral compass. I know I'll feel guilty saying "no" to a neighbor who needs my assistance to stem the tide of his plumbing disaster, even though helping him will mean missing my cherished weekly basketball game. I know I'll feel guilty saying "no" to my sick neighbor's request to pick up her child from school, simply because it would be inconvenient. I know I'll feel guilty if I make up some excuse to my daughter about why I can't take her and her friends to the movies this weekend. Furthermore, the anticipation of guilt can help you control impulses that would be hurtful to others. Despite a strong, mutual attraction, I won't go out with the woman who broke off the love affair with my friend because it would be too painful for him to bear.
Good guilt can allow the pain of your acknowledged mistake to prompt your resolve to do better. (You know how much you hurt your daughter when you didn't go to her last class play, so you'll be sure to go to the one this coming week. You didn't understand how much Valentine's Day meant to your wife, so you promise yourself to make up for your negligence and buy her a nice gift next year.) On the other hand, when you provide ready excuses for your actions ("She won't even notice," "I couldn't help myself," "He had it coming," "It's not a big deal"), you not only fail to take responsibility for them, but you avoid even the recognition that you screwed up.
For most of us, guilt is superficial and manageable. It usually lasts for just a few moments, perhaps for an hour or two. If our behavior truly egregious, maybe a day. But, as I said in the Introduction, reflexively justify our immoral behavior, or simply forget about it and move on.
We sometimes induce guilt in another in order to get him to do what's right. Coming from the outside, it is a tool that must be used carefully and sparingly. Usually, we get angry at a person who makes us feel guilty. Any desire to correct our behavior drowns in a sea of resentment ("Don't tell me what to do!"). My guilt induction can paralyze you, as your anger baffles with your desire to act correctively. Nevertheless, it is my place to tell you, "I think you acted really insensitively toward Ron. You might want to offer an apology."
Unfortunately, we often use guilt to further our self-centered interests, without concern for the pain it might cause another. Parents do that a lot to their children. "Why is it that a mother can take care of three children, but three children can't take care of one mother?" our aging parent who lives in a nursing home wants to know.
A mother buys her adult son a blue sweater and a yellow sweater for his birthday. "Why don't you wear one tonight when yo