Why are some people seemingly kind to society, yet incapable of empathizing with their loved ones? This appears to be a paradox.
Mahatma Gandhi practiced Ahimsa or non-violence and applied this to his politics and social projects. And yet, he was utterly cruel to his wife Kasturbai and utterly disdainful to his son Harilal. Both suffered immensely on account of Gandhi’s eccentricities. And yet to the world, Gandhi was a celebrated hero of non-violence and an integral part of the Indian independence movement.
This, of course, does not dull the shine of Gandhi’s other achievements. They were truly monumental and pivotal in achieving independence for India. For that matter, no human being can be seen from a polarized perspective. We all have our pluses and our minuses. The question though is, why did someone who was a champion of non-violence treat his closest people so poorly?
To understand this, we need to understand empathy versus the ideology of empathy. An ideology of empathy is an assumed intellectual position. It is often founded on the need for power. That is to say, something deep stirs within us when we read about equality (in communism), non-violence (in Gandhi’s work), democracy, LGBTQ rights, and other similar ideological positions. This is typical for most of us, in our twenties, when we are deeply influenceable and not yet tarnished by the cynicism that affects so many of us post our thirties. This stirring helps us find meaning – one of the core components of a good life. Our souls yearn to associate ourselves with something much more significant than ourselves. It could be a sports team, a cult, a religion, and in this example – an ideology. Ideology helps us break out from a meaningless, insignificant life and feel a part of something greater. This is the need for power. The ideology of empathy is indeed a noble position, but it is not founded on true empathy. As said above, it is an assumed intellectual position bereft of any corresponding feeling in the body.
True empathy on the other hand is based on accepting the pain in ourselves when others are in distress. Our feelings are highly contagious – more than intellectual ideas. This is why emotive news spreads quickly. Boring philosophy, however great it might be, spread slowly like a train of meandering elephants. When somebody is in pain, then their suffering is felt within us. Our response to this pain within us is the foundation of empathy. Emotionally unaware and untrained people usually want to get rid of this bad feeling in the body as soon as possible. They use intellectual positions to tell the other person why they shouldn’t be feeling this way. Or they jump into indignation at the society or person or political party that caused the suffering. That is, they blame. Notice how they do not address the suffering through empathetic gestures (giving them a hug, listening patiently, etc.). They instead show support by shouting out against the perpetrator. They become social champions of causes. I’m guessing Gandhi might have fallen into this category. Ahimsa and non-violent resistance was an ideology, even though it was something he believed in deeply. But it did not translate into an acceptance of his own feelings.
A truly empathetic person on the other hand operates at the feeling level first. She accepts the pain in herself. And this acceptance helps one extend acceptance and therefore empathy to the other. This acceptance is the foundation for healing. Once healed, action can arise – not out of reactionary anger – but out of deliberate and planned thought. Usually, such action is effective. Emotional awareness is critical to being empathetic. Otherwise, we risk descending into hypocritical empathetic ideologies.
The problem with our leaders at work and in society is simply this. They aren’t empathetic towards their own feelings and therefore cannot be empathetic towards anybody. They may speak of justice, equality, democracy, and love – but these are empty words – ideologies without any emotions behind them. And we cannot blame leaders for who they are. We have to point our fingers at ourselves. The need to show ourselves as perfect means that we shut off the doors of possibility to be vulnerable. “Hey I am afraid”, “Hey I am hurt”. Such statements are seen as a weakness in our society. Anger is preferred and even venerated as being ‘manly’. And therefore, we expect our leaders to portray a false strength that they never have. This single error, makes them run away from their weaknesses and therefore makes them into people incapable of empathy.
And why are they so harsh towards the people closest to them? One, the ones closest to them know who they really are. The false fabricated veneers of persona are gone. They stand exposed to their loved ones. And this is intolerable. Second, as humans we naturally feel more towards the people we are close to. And as a result, we are more sensitive to their suffering. This is again, intolerable. And therefore, they are constantly fighting the feelings of pain that are caused within themselves, seemingly due to the loved one. And the inability to accept this results in anger and cruel behavior.
The foundation of kindness in ourselves rests on coming close to our emotions and realizing that all emotions are acceptable. We then, and only then, become persons who are capable of accepting the diversity of people, opinions, emotions, skin colors, ethnicities, and so on. Acceptance is the foundation of equality and tolerance. But this is impossible if it comes from an ideological space. It must come from an emotive space. This is why emotional awareness is so crucial in our lives – more so today than ever before.