Empathy impacts how we live

I was trying to research the difference between empathy and sympathy. That led me to terms like en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ventromedial_prefrontal_cortexventromedial prefrontal gyrus.

If I drop that term into a casual conversation I would either impress the heck out of people or they would consider me a candidate for the “funny-farm.” In any event that term, of which I have no understanding, stopped me cold.

Suppose, remaining practical in this area, I were to say, “That other guy is not as good-looking as I am.” You might consider my comment as “Empathy” or maybe “Sympathy” or just conceit on my part (and that last would be most right). Ah, but this borders on the very thing I was trying to research. It has been discovered – and some of you may know people who fit these categories – that feelings of sympathy and/or empathy vary greatly among us. From research done by folks who look into these things, they suggest it has to do with the “wiring of the brain.” It is also affected by, if not entirely shaped by, our experiences as a child. Were we loved or rejected, cared for or abused?

Those younger years have a lot to do with shaping our understanding of what to expect of this world we were born into. Some of it may be inherited and some may be the love and caring we received (or not) during our “formative” years. That love and caring is what provides your personal “pot of gold,” an endless supply of empathy upon which you can draw in later years.

We all vary in what we have in our “pot of gold.” The balance we each receive can be the determining factor in how we act or react to situations we encounter and consequently how we respond to those around us in our adult years.

If you encounter someone who seems insensitive to your feelings it may not be intentional. They may not mean to hurt you at all. It could be that they simply don’t comprehend the affect their actions are having on you or your feelings. They may be unaware, insensitive to the results of their actions.

They may even have some recognition of your reaction but believe it is an error on your part caused by your inability to recognize and adapt to the real world, a world in which they believe “that’s the way things are.” They would see no need for any feeling of sympathy but would believe you hadn’t learned to accept the world as it is. That would leave no requirement for empathy. Does that make them bad people? Probably not. It just makes them different. (Just like that unfortunate fellow who’s not as good looking as I am?)

Sympathy is a feeling, a reaction to the state of another. Empathy goes deeper. It recognizes, identifies with and wishes to do something to aid the state of another. Both conditions require identifying with the other person, recognizing that you and they have much in common.

When countries go to war one of the first actions or programs initiated is an attempt to identify those other people as different from you and your people. We must destroy any sympathy or empathy for them. That way it makes it easier to kill them. That’s a brutal explanation but that’s the way it is.

Compare that thinking to interpersonal relations with your neighbor or, in the case of your children, with the kid down the street. If you get along, they’re great and you like them. If you don’t get along it’s because they’re different, they’re bad.

Even if it’s a (medical or psychological) case of lack of empathy as we mentioned above, it’s still difficult to dislike someone if you identify yourself with them, if you see them as a person the same as you are. That’s your assigned heavy thinkin’ for today.

Editors note: Ben Mukkala is an award-winning northern Michigan author whose several books on life and living are available in printed and e-book form. Books are available in bookstores and gift shops or through his website, www.benmukkala.com. You can contact Ben via email at bmukk@chartermi.net.