Empathy, Apathy, and Sociopathy
Do you ever find yourself wondering why life keeps repeating itself? Does something happen and you ask yourself — haven’t we been down this road before? Do you have a friend who responds to someone else’s misfortune with a glib remark? Do you scratch your head and wonder why you’re often the only one who helps a friend or relative out when needed?
Humans! They’re a piece of work, aren’t they?
My grandmother use to say that the more she saw of humans the more she liked dogs. Yeah, Nini, I get that. I pretty much prefer the company of dogs these days myself.
The first time I began to notice the often contradictory behaviors of humans was around age ten when I heard people praying.
They often prayed to a god to give them things that they wanted. You know — a job, a new house, a husband. My mom used to call upon her god to help her find her car keys. I could hear her from the other room pleading for assistance.
Even then, at such a young age, I was bothered by her behavior.
I never felt comfortable asking for material things when I knew that there were people in the world who were starving. I score pretty high on the empathy scale, so I THINK maybe that’s what made it possible for me to feel uncomfortable with a lot of things other people seemed to just take for granted. Eventually, I discovered that like prayer, many of the cultural expectations I grew up with through the sheer lottery of birth were driven by self-centered and controlling needs.
So much of what we’re taught by our culture causes a lot of people more harm than good.
Where you fall on the empathy scale often determines how aware you are of your own selfishness. My mom wasn’t particularly empathetic. I noticed that around ten years old, too. She was mostly self absorbed and committed to finding ways to meet her own needs. I can only remember a few times when my mom stood up for someone other than herself. Those few occasions were limited to someone nearest to her.
She was definitely capable of taking a stand, however, especially on her own behalf.
She and my dad had a lifetime of conflict with one another whenever she resisted his dictatorial habits. Yet, when it came to losing sleep over someone else’s misfortune or abuse, she wasn’t available for the long haul.
As a ten year old, I was much more inclined to fight for a just cause on behalf of someone else than a lot of grownups I knew.
Cruelty and unfairness bothered me — a lot. I stood up against the bully on the playground. I stood up against my dad when he was too harsh with my younger brothers and sisters. I lost sleep when I learned about the holocaust. My mom had to hide the newspaper from my view if there was a particularly horrifying story of the day. It would send me spirally down to a dark place.
I slowly but surely began to see humans in three different categories —empaths, sociopaths, and apaths.
It didn’t seem like we got to choose which one we wanted to be either. To a greater or lesser extent, we were either born with the capacity to feel the pain of others or not.
Empathy is a double-edged sword.
A world without empaths would be a bleak place, but to BE the empath is often quite painful. We’re not yet sure why there are people who lack empathy and others who are swimming in it. Scientists have concluded that empathy has a genetic component. In other words, we’re born that way. I’m not a scientist so I won’t attempt to explain in depth what this entails, but I can say this.
As far back as I can remember, I was greatly affected by the mere thought of the suffering of others.
I worried about wild animals and lost dogs. I felt guilty when I said or did things to deliberately hurt someone. I listened to old people’s stories because I felt their loneliness. The downside is that I saw the world as a bleaker place than if I’d scored lower on the empathy scale.
I worried about things that would probably never effect me personally.
Without empaths in the world, I sincerely doubt that we’d have many martyrs for a cause or activists who stand up for social justice. The presence of empaths brings a little balance to what could be a world without mercy. Those without empathy cause so much damage. To be void of empathy encompasses only about 4% of the world’s population, but that 4% creates a lot of trouble for the rest of us.
Have you noticed?
The rest of us fall on an empathy scale from minimal capacity to full capacity empaths. Those with the smallest amount of empathy are often apathetic. They can be stirred up by the empath to take a stand but often they sit on the fence. They’re empathy isn’t so powerful as to keep them up at night. They are bothered the most when something bad happens to someone close to them. Rarely do they lose sleep over the plight of strangers, however. They often end up casting their lot with the sociopath simply to guarantee that they get what they need or to avoid trouble for themselves.
Incidentally, many sociopaths strive to be leaders. They also go after empaths. Apaths usually sit on the sidelines and just watch. They want a life without turmoil.
Empaths, however, lose sleep, vomit into their toilets, become depressed when they hear stories about the poaching of elephants on the other side of the world or children in orphanages far away who need homes. Some empaths fight a cause to their death. They often look around right before the guillotine drops and there’s no one there to give them support. They took on the world for the sake of justice and the sociopaths won.
It’s not only exhausting to be an empath, it can be deadly.
Empaths feel the pain of others in their own bodies. Literally. As though it’s happening to them personally. They’re often exhausted and distressed because every time they pick up a newspaper, look out the window, or take a phone call, someone’s suffering is called to they’re attention and it’s slowly killing them.
People tell an empath their problems because empaths will listen.
Empaths can’t stop the way they feel except perhaps by refusing to listen to the news or answer the phone. To advise an empath to just not think about the pain, suffering, and injustices in the world is an exercise in futility.
There’s so much we still don’t understand about what makes humans do what they do. We’re starting to get a clearer picture through scientific studies but we’re not able to apply a lot of that knowledge to our relationships.
One thing that is beginning to seem more and more likely is that we don’t actually have as much power over our behaviors as we like to think. The combination of our own wiring, DNA, cultural influences, IQ, environmental impacts, and the exposure we have to diversity combine to produce our world view. We aren’t always choosing how we respond to this complex journey called life. Our reactions are instantaneous and pretty predictable.
We are who we are …
This thing of being human is a ball of contradictions and mystery. Since I became interested in figuring out what makes humans do what they do, I’ve spent a lot of time in the observatory just taking it all in. Turns out humans are more predictable than I once thought.
Even group behavior is predictable. Our behaviors in certain scenarios tend to play out the same over and over again. Different people, different settings, different time zones, different eras but the same responses and outcomes.
“History repeats itself” is a famous saying that is far more significant that we realize. Unfortunately, we readily repeat this precious gem of wisdom but don’t use it to inform ourselves.
Instead, we expect to be able to do things the same way but get different outcomes.
Religion, politics, world affairs, personal and professional relationships, societal ills, power structures, family life, even personal decisions are governed by a relatively small number of emotional responses. Factor in the different levels of empathy or lack thereof and we were given a recipe that guarantees some pretty dangerous outcomes.
I’m not sure if people can be taught how to be empathetic.
Perhaps sympathetic is the most we can achieve. Do we model this for our children? Would it be possible to change the world if people were taught how to be sympathetic at the very least.
If we formed our societies around cooperation rather than competition would that produce social evolution at last?
We’ve made enormous technological advances. It’s mindboggling what we’ve accomplished just in the last 150 years. Our ancestors would be amazed and speechless with wonder.
However, socially, we remain stunted.
We’re cavemen with cell phones. We solve problems with violence. We’re selfish and uncaring. We protect social inequities with our very lives through war and unfair laws.
Our cultural expectations remain steadfastly rooted in the tribal practices that insure our own personal survival at whatever cost to others.
We can imagine a better world or at least some of us can, but we repeat history at such regular intervals, often regressing, that we may never end up achieving the world we dream about.
We need a world of empaths, but that will never be.
Teresa Roberts is a retired educator, author, world traveler, and professional myth buster. You can find her books on Amazon.