Empathy’s magic

(Part 2 of a series prompted by Vanessa Wood’s Bonobo Handshake. Part 3 will follow shortly, after which we’ll return to our main subject)

Photo credit: Pedrosimoes7

Empathy and its impediments

When my daughter was seven, our nanny Irene got married and moved to Florida.  This was a big loss for my daughter, who for the next several weeks would wander around the house saying “I miss Irene” to anyone who would listen.   She drove us all crazy.

One morning I remember in particular. I was hurrying to finish breakfast so as not to be late for work.  My daughter was by my side, telling me as always how much she missed Irene.  I was dividing my attention between trying to console her and trying not to spill my cereal.

I remember telling her about how I knew how hard this was for her, how she could call Irene in Florida tonight, how just wait she would feel better some day, and so on – everything I could think of.  But nothing seemed to help.

Then suddenly, as if by magic, I had a flash of memory — of a woman in college whom I’d pursued unsuccessfully, who had been with me briefly then called the whole thing off.  I remembered days of long lonely walks through campus, feeling half alive.  I looked in my daughter’s eyes, the memory still painful after all these years.

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “I’m really sorry.”

After that, for the first time in days, she sat quietly by my side and let me eat my breakfast.

Saved by the magic of empathy.  Before my college memory had spontaneously appeared, I hadn’t been thinking of my daughter and myself as alike in any way.  She was the person with the problem, and I was the dad trying to be patient.  My sudden painful memory erased all that.  Suddenly we were both one in suffering.

In my daily role as a psychiatrist specializing in psychotherapy, I think a lot about empathy.  When one person’s mind naturally mirrors another person’s experience – through a feeling, a memory, or sometimes an action.  And I try to be as aware as I can, moment to moment, whether I’m feeling it or not.  Because all sorts of things can get in the way of empathy.

Chief among the impediments to empathy is the tendency to deny that “you” are just like “me.”

Most of us turn empathy on and off, moment to moment, depending on how much pain we can tolerate.  Because empathy usually means shared pain.  Cut off empathy, and you’ll travel much lighter.

The empathy ape

I got to thinking anew about empathy after reading fellow PT bloggerVanessa Woods‘ Bonobo Handshake, which I reviewed last week (“Sex in the wild”).  In the book, she discussed how our two closest ape relatives, the chimpanzees and bonobos, differ in their capacity for tolerance, cooperation – and though she doesn’t mention empathy per se, it seems to me she’s talking about empathy.  Putting one’s self in another’s shoes.  Not by rational thought.  But naturally — purely by magic, as in my encounter with my daughter.

From Woods’ descriptions of chimpanzees, they seem to be low on empathy, and to reserve what little of it they have for members of their own group, for “us.”  An outsider, a “them,” is vulnerable to being savagely beaten or killed.

Bonobos, as described by Woods, appear to lack the gene that would divide their world into “us” and “them.”  Their circle of empathy seems to include all of their kind.  Unlike chimpanzees, they don’t show stranger fear when shown pictures of unfamiliar bonobos.  They love both the bonobo neighbor and the bonobo stranger as much as they love their bonobo selves.  They don’t require a biblical commandment for this.

Are we humans more like bonobos, or like chimpanzees?   As Chris Ryan and Cacilda Jetha state in Sex at Dawn (see my article, “Will Sex at Dawn affect sex therapy?”), it depends on the conditions we find ourselves in.   And the conditions for a bonobo-like human society vanished millennia ago.    We’re currently in a chimpanzee phase, without a doubt.

My bonobo morning

It’s impossible, though, to read Bonobo Handshake without being affected by knowledge of a creature and a society that doesn’t instinctively differentiate between “us” and “them.”

The morning after reading the book, I had a strange experience.

It was a cold Sunday morning in Manhattan.  Bundled up against the wind, I passed a homeless man holding a sign that said, “Please help me.  Mysleeping bag was stolen last night.”

All of a sudden I had the impulse to take him to buy a sleeping bag.  For a magic moment, the barrier between me and this stranger had broken down, and I couldn’t walk away from the fact that he’d lost his sleeping bag.  Surprising myself, I offered to do so, and he immediately accepted.

As we walked together to the local outdoor equipment store on 73rd and Broadway, he spoke to me about himself and his life.  And being a psychiatrist, I couldn’t help assessing him.  He spoke about the future of the world, about pollution. Ordinary enough subjects – but with enough extra intensity to mark him as just a bit odd.  Maybe even crazy.

I felt like a fool. If he was crazy, that was definitely “other.”  Not me. The empathic spell was broken.

Sad and discouraged, but feeling bound by my promise, I continued with him to the store.  As I gave the salesman my credit card, my companion and I looked at each other directly for the first time.  For a few seconds, neither of us looked away.  His eyes at that moment reminded me of a teacher of mine from long ago.

I felt the connection coming back.  The empathic circuits switched on again, and by the time he shook my hand thank-you and walked away, I again had that magic feeling as if it was me who would be protected from the cold that night.

I know — You’re thinking, “What’s all this got to do with sexuality?”  Probably nothing.  At least nothing that I could present coherently.   But I couldn’t rest until I’d put it down on paper.

Go read Bonobo Handshake, if you haven’t already.  Just hold onto your credit card after you do.

Copyright © Stephen Snyder, MD 2011 www.sexualityresource.com New York City

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