Despair, Ego, and Empathy

Originally published in the January 2017 issue of Sodapop Magazine. 

 

It’s that claustrophobic feeling. The world seems to be shrinking around me and a particular despair begins to set in. There's a slow downward spiral that follows like clockwork and eventually I realize the cause. I've been sucked into the, largely, nonsensical worlds of others via social media. Stepping away from it offers short term relief, but I’m not going to kid myself that that’s a practical long term solution. Jumping back and forth between wanting to be connected and disconnected at the same time is not a viable option. Not one that will bring any sense of peace anyway and I know I can’t be the only one to feel this.

 

To save our brains energy, the initial solution out of this catch 22 is usually the most simple and gratifying. Dismiss all of “those” people that are crazy as, well…crazy, or stupid, or something else that admonishes their behavior. Despite the warm fuzzy psychological feelings this explanation may offer, we fail to give the issues any real justice. We not only begin to isolate ourselves, by neglecting large chunks of the worlds population, if we remain consistent with our conclusions, but we undermine the legitimacy of our own perspectives by refusing those of others. The world starts becoming much smaller and, as chance would have it, it’s us and our friends that have somehow made the cut of sanity. Our internet assembled philosophies have served us in a surprisingly flawless way and now we’re ready to take on all those people, we’ve deemed capable of understanding, who have made the grade of rationality. As fate would have it though, there’s little need. Coincidently, we all seem to be in the same boat already! 

 

At the core of this problem is the subjectivity of human perspective. It’s the belief that we think we understand, to a large degree, what’s really going on. This explains why we never seem to make the crazy list during any of our own assessments. We make perfect sense to ourselves. Considering our existence is a blip in the span of humanity, and an even smaller one in the multi billion year evolution of the world, our incredulously small interactions with the universe resemble something closer to anecdotally naive rather than anything grandly impartial. Though this may be glaringly obvious to us intellectually, we rarely act in accordance with it. The value that we often place on ourselves and what contributes to our interests is instinctual. As the world becomes bigger and more complex, acting out of this reflex will only cause greater problems. Any refusal to acknowledge the bearing any individual holds in the world only serves to undermine any kind of justice we seek to attain. This doesn’t imply everyone is right or that we all have to sing “Kumbaya” together. It only means that we need the varying input of those involved if we are to determine a society that strives to offer well being to the masses. If we continue ostracizing or dismissing large groups of people for the sake of others then we decide to continue living in a truly insane society. Doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results. 

 

The uncomfortable catch is that it is only through genuine empathy that we can adopt this knowledge. Without it we remain destined to our own ego in a comfortable retreat. This seems to be why most of us are content with serving our own agendas. It’s much more pleasant interjecting oneself from the comfort of an armchair than to risk having a contrary idea disrupt how we makes sense of the world. 

 

The positive side of all of this is that, since we are innately social creatures, whose survival depends on creating cultural practices, we have the chance to implement an empathetical stance more than ever. At no point in history have we ever been able to communicate with so many people with such volume. Every day, in record numbers, we’re faced with a spectrum of choices. They range from indulging in ad hominem rhetoric to the chance to “be the change you wish to see”, to quote a famous revolutionist. It’s a simple choice, but hardly easy. It seems to be up to us though to create that expectation. By doing so maybe we can generate the solace that so many of us are looking for. If at the heart of this peace is justice and at the heart of justice is understanding, then all this hinges on empathy. This is the only synthesis I can offer anyway.