Someone told me a little while ago that the only way to make things right in the world is to only think about others – to never think about yourself. This person is one of the people that I refer to as those ‘Enlightened Ones’ over here, floating around the ex-pat scene doing a lot more contemplating than say, actual doing.
I thought about this for a while. Always think of others. Never yourself. Eliminate selfishness.
Her theory is that if everyone would do this then you would never have to think of yourself, presumably because everyone else is thinking of you. Hmm. Sounds a little like buying on the margin to me… works just as long as every variable stays in place. I understand that this may highlight what appears to be my own personal lack of faith in humanity, which would be the subject for another blog all together, but really it is not simply a lack of faith, it is waking up in the last decade to realize that I matter. Yes. ME. I am not a shirking violet by any stretch, safe to say I never have been, but I have put the thoughts, concerns, needs and priorities of others before mine for years. Not just before mine, instead of mine. I don’t think this is enlightened, I think this is silly.
I am not advocating selfishness, but I think that if you do not consider yourself, ever, you miss a great opportunity to learn about yourself and consequently your connection to, and place in, this larger world. A comparative analysis is not only interesting, it can be enlightening as well. Without this, how would you even have the tools of understanding that are required to be empathetic?
This E.O. went on to say that empathy was the core value of humanity and that there had been a study measuring empathy. Of course, modern humans had come up terribly short in this “study.” Measure empathy? Again, I say: Hmmmmmmm………
Beyond the obvious fact, which we all learn in the most basic college courses that STATISTICS LIE, let’s talk for a moment about quantifying a subjective (inherently qualitative) concept like empathy. Is this possible? In the painful discussion to which I was witness, a consensus of what constituted empathy could not even be reached be semi-like minded people who know each other.
Define ’empathy’: To me, empathy means being able to relate to, or understand, the way someone is feeling, for whatever reason. I may not understand the reason, or I may think that the reason is ridiculous, but that doesn’t matter, I can acknowledge that it is making a person experience a certain feeling, which in turn, I can relate to. Dictionary.com says empathy is: “the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another” among other things. That all sounds reasonable.
So then, how to “measure” this? Well, according to the E.O. the study had a high school student trip and fall, dropping all of their stuff in the hallway during passing time on an exam day. Then they counted how many students stopped to help the fallen one. That was the percentage of people who had empathy.
Have you been to high school?
My argument with the E.O. was that there were so many variables that this could hardly be considered a “study” in any sense of the word. Not to mention as another friend brought up, some people might consider it more empathetic to let the kid get up on their own instead of making a huge scene over helping. Interesting point. NO, said the E.O., if you have any degree of compassion you help. PERIOD. No other alternative. It doesn’t matter if you know the person, don’t know the person, have the most important exam of your life, are having your own personally bad day, anything. You. Must. Help.
I sat there thinking about this and the inflexibility and the finality of her words. There was only ONE right way to think and act. The perceived needs of this stranger must come first. I tried to explain that your perception of the person’s needs would be instinctively ego-driven and could likely be wrong. I also mentioned that she was not really thinking of other people as she dogmatically insisted that her way of understanding the situation was the one RIGHT way. I said she was not being very empathetic to my point of view.
But my comments were cut short as she realized that she had locked her keys in her apartment and she was going to need someone to help her get them out. Not later (we were at a book group meeting and it was not over) but RIGHT THEN. Someone HAD to help her. Several people offered their help, but could we wait until the meeting had concluded? NO. She had to get them NOW. It was getting dark. What would she do? If she couldn’t get them, where would she go? How would she cope? She HAD to get them NOW. The individual she wanted to help her did not want to go right then and that was obvious to everyone. But that did not deter the E.O. She insisted. Now. Me. This second. My Keys. My plight. My fear. My evening. My helplessness. Me. Me. Me.
Of course, being the type of person that I am, I pointed out that she was kind of putting herself before the needs and desires of others, in fact before the general happiness of an entire group, she wan’t really being empathetic to how we were feeling.
She said, “I know. Me, me, me. But this is important!”