Thursday, January 1, 2015

Nihilism as Absurd Compassion Activism

all those times I've tried to be everything to everyone...
simple things
i've lost
along the way
little victories
unimpressed now
ever seeking greater things
inspired by great beings, aspiring to become greater still
but can i be good enough to be not evil to myself?
like to think I'm a nice person, but I only come off that way... 
an uncomfortable mind
in a pretty body
maybe that's...okay

...compassion...means something other than empathy...but what?

is it just a different perspective on suffering? one that is solution-oriented? And is it possible to get to compassion without the empathy perspective?

"Where empathy is about stepping into the shoes of another to understand and share their feelings, compassion is about acquiring a 360 degrees understanding of the suffering or problem that a person is experiencing.  Empathy is emotionally absorbing the feelings of another and, in contrast, compassion is holistically learning about their problem and taking action to resolve it.  The distinction is important for any discussion about the “unique burnout” of caretakers.  Emotionally absorbing another’s feelings, which empathy entails, is physically draining and can make you feel metaphorically stuck in quicksand.  Compassion, on the other hand, keeps the emotional quicksand at a distance by using a cognitive understanding of a person’s suffering when attempting to alleviate the pain: understanding without absorbing." Chris Kukk, The Difference between Compassion & Empathy

But does this sufficiently distinguish sympathy from empathy?

"There is some emotional distance with sympathyyou are not experiencing the pain for yourself, rather you are saying 'Isn’t it sad that this person is having a bad time'. Sometimes sympathy can tip into pity, and that is where some caution is needed....Empathy takes things a little deeper – it is the ability to experience for yourself some of the pain that the other person may be experiencing. It is an acknowledgement of our shared experience as humans and recognition that we all feel grief and loss and pain and fear...If empathy is the ability to really experience some of the feelings of pain that another person is feeling, then compassion is to translate that feeling into action. You understand that your friend is feeling worried and stressed with their aging relative in hospital, so you cook the family some dinners and take their children for an afternoon. True compassion reaches out to all people, no matter whether they are your friends or not, and even to all living creatures. It is the ability and willingness to stand alongside someone and to put their needs before your own." (Operation-Mediation, Sympathy v. Empathy v. Compassion)

Still the distinction is murky. The empathy as "understanding without absorbing" that Kukk is talking about almost sounds like sympathy, a kind of dispassionate recognition of someone's suffering.  Is it really possible to understand someone's suffering without absorbing it? Is experiencing someone's suffering not a requisite for compassionately acting upon it?

Kukk cites a study by Tania Singer, director of neuroscience at Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Lepzig, who "has used MRI scanners to show that compassion and empathy 'are two different phenomena associated with different brain activity patterns.' "  But neither is clearly aware of the fact that all of these people in caregiving roles find themselves going through the burnout of " 'compassion fatigue' (a.k.a. secondary traumatic stress)" [Kukk]  There must be something more to compassion than just empathy-inspired action.

Jumping back to some word roots:

Sympathy is an "assimilated form of syn- 'together' (see syn-) + pathos 'feeling' (see pathos)"; syn being "(prep.) 'with, together with, along with, in the company of' " and pathos being " 'suffering, feeling, emotion, calamity,' literally 'what befalls one' "

Empathy is "modeled on German Einfühlung (from ein "in" + Fühlung "feeling"), which was coined 1858 by German philosopher Rudolf Lotze (1817-1881) a translation of Greek empatheia "passion, state of emotion," from assimilated form of en 'in' (see en- (2)) + pathos "feeling" (see pathos)"; em- being a "word-forming element meaning 'near, at, in, on, within,' from Greek en 'in,' "

It remains difficult to distinguish these terms due to their seemingly discontinuous arrival in the language. I recall the term sympathy being used by Adam Smith, for example, writing natively in English, suggesting the idea of "fellow feeling," which does not so much sound like the sympathy that is common today. Is the distinction merely a difference of linguistic-historical context, meant to denote the same feeling? Is the semantic distinction significant of cognitive differences in these feelings? Best question I can imagine at the moment: How can you tell a sympathetic reaction from an empathetic one?

Jumping back, I see that another aspect of the etymology of empathy claims it is, "A term from a theory of art appreciation that maintains appreciation depends on the viewer's ability to project his personality into the viewed object."  This projection experience seems to be something distinct, perhaps a more active form of feeling in which you try to project your feelings into another's experience. The more I imagine this, the more troubling it sounds: how can an attempt to project one's senses into another's experience generate real understanding? Would anything about one's fellow feeling actually change by projecting it into someone else? Aside from a SQUID-type device "which records events directly from the wearer's cerebral cortex," ("Strange Days", Wikipedia) it seems difficult to know if you've achieved any accuracy or just shoe-horned your feelings in someone else's body.

....blech. All these thought-words.  Nothing helping...not to resolve the persistent questions: is Sheba okay?  how can I help them?  why do I want to help them?  how do I help someone who can't help themself?  (Sheba is a homeless person I met eight months ago in Boulder, hobbling his way into town -- having an injured leg due to being hit by a car -- with only the possessions on his back -- having been robbed of his inventory of computers and  arrived in town and looking for a home and community of activists, ) and the most troubling question of all...did I do enough to help him?  

Who is going to be the judge?  Thoughts and feelings are really not enough...especially when it comes to below freezing temperatures and nowhere else to go...true he is unwilling to accept the homeless services, due to a requirement to receive undesirable psychiatric medication/treatment, so what do you say to yourself. Tough luck. 

And then, it comes, the vindictive response...I wanna say "Do you enjoy living this way?! Why are you doing this to me, putting me in this position??" I know it's not really you that I want to blame...and I don't think it's everyone either...I think it's fucking existence, which is so filled with injustice it makes you wonder when anyone suggested the word egalitarian. 

How long must I listen? What am I supposed to say? You didn't ask me to ask the questions of your existence, to solve the problem of how to do work 

 about how to resolve your life's problems, but you seem to need someone to wake you up to the necessity of not getting your way.
and yet you're not asking yourself how to make your life better.  you're stuck in the dilemmas, and not letting yourself choose anything undesirable.

, and yet still don't understand: where is it they are coming from? I know it is not helpful to blame them for the situation they are in, so what do I do?  I want to NOT continue to take undue responsibility for problems of this society...yet what is my due?  All can I do?  How much can I do?  How much is enough?  When the revolution still hasn't come, when the absurd wheel of this society keeps turning, when the contradictions go on unresolved, is any one thing ever enough?

The feeling of stuck-ness. 
Dilemmas ahead, behind, all around.
Undesirable scenarios...some more desirable than others.
Still, I must ask: how much is enough?
Further: how much is too much?
When we will be able to demand a STOP to our moneyed existence? (THE MINIMUM WAGE WILL NEVER BE HIGH ENOUGH TO SURVIVE.)
When will we be able to live on compassion?
When will we begin to thrive?

Revolution is slow.  Latent crises demand that we push. Necessity requires that we build a community to break this society's fall. But the common faith that connects all beings is still lacking. 

I walked away from Sheba today.  I had nothing else to say...only an ear to hear his words and walk away another sad person, wanting to be of service, and feeling powerless because I couldn't solve their problems, and unwilling to offer my resources to another fucked up individual.

(The one thing I walk away thinking is that I was able to convey my emotions and not just be nice, as in, pleasant and pathetic. Forced to be a crutch in someone else's struggle.  AND YES I know that's fucked up to say that out loud, to pity yourself when as a white male you've got all this institutional access and social privilege that you should really hold yourself to a higher standard than everyone who lives in this perpetual underclass, to say that you're the one who deserves concern when someone else is in need. But I tried my best to convey how I thought I could help Sheba: not by offering another sympathetic ear, to make him feel good about his knowledge, and listen to his woes, (which it always seems to come back to) but someone to point the next step in improving his situation. I don't think I did well at it...despite having tried...I just wish I didn't have to feel like I may have condemned him to die.  It's this bullshit about good intentions that seems like an easy fall back when you become an im-perfectionist. This isn't supposed to mean that anything goes. I want it to mean: it's okay to make mistakes, to not get it right every time, that....yes, intentions are important...but so are results.)

I find my back to an article that I discovered a year ago, which actually happens to be an interview with the Tania Singer who is cited in these previous blog posts. She gives me a more salient distinction of this empathy/compassion distinction:

"When I empathize with the suffering of others, I feel the pain of others; I am suffering myself. This can become so intense that it produces empathic distress in me and in the long run could lead to burnout and withdrawal. In contrast, if we feel compassion for someone else’s suffering, we do not necessarily feel with their pain but we feel concern – a feeling of love and warmth – and we can develop a strong motivation to help the other.
The neural networks underlying the effects of empathy and compassion training are very different. Whereas the former increases negative emotions, the latter is associated with positive feelings of warmth and increased activation in brain networks associated with affiliation and reward.
This may have large implications for people working in care-giving professions, such as nurses, doctors, therapists, and even fire fighters. Teaching them to transform an initial empathic response when confronted with the deep suffering of their patients or clients into a compassionate stance could protect them from negative health consequences and burnout often associated with these jobs. At the same time, it could also help the patients, as compassion is not only rewarding for yourself but obviously good for others too." (Feeling Others' Pain: Transforming Empathy into Compassion, Interview with Tania Singer)

What does that compassionate stance produce? Not just the feeling of being heard, but some kind of action. Even if the results are incomplete, this is something better than nothing.  I think true caregivers are looking at the whole person, however, and do not want to see their job go unfinished. They may want take on more than is requested of them, because their empathy reveals more than just a momentary pain to be healed or soothed. They would like to see suffering to cease and thus take on more responsibility than their bodies can sustain, and unsustainable behavior is not creating the net gain that we'd like to achieve.

I want to say something new about why I want to do what I do.  It's not because I feel bad for others and I want to make them feel better so that I can feel better.  It's because we can feel better together.  It's just more difficult to achieve once you recognize the problems are rather intractable...some social structures are repeating the same traumas on the people...and even if you can learn to recognize them, you can't solve them on your own: you need a whole crew behind beside you and maybe, over a lifetime or so, you get to see progress.  Maybe.  That mere possibility thing can be another killer...the idea you are putting effort into something that might be scrapped eventually.  You can't get tied to the thing you put your effort into...and in a peculiar way, you might find it easier to not even retain hope for the desired outcome, simply out of the expectation for an end goal that needs to change before you achieve it. Still, efforts made should be acknowledged, even if all of our concerns cannot be put to rest.

Let us give thanks, now and again, to Pandora for preventing Hope from leaving her box, for however unintentionally she had prevented releasing it into the world along with all the other plagues, we might be better off without it than to have a crutch which helps us to avoid acting in an absurd universe.

2015.01Jan.02, 12:34 am