Does empathy help?

I want to read Paul Bloom’s book, Against Empathy, where he argues that empathy too often leads us to make poor moral choices. As a fan of George Eliot (the best empathy = morality novelist of the 19th century) I’m curious — but I can see his point, even before reading the book.

However, I had an epiphany today — which is very timely, as it’s Epiphany Sunday. While my husband was at Mass, I was in the ravine with Lyra (as usual).  Just as we were heading down the path that goes under a bridge, I saw a man watching us from the top. He came to the bridge end, and began to climb down the wooded hill towards us. (We seldom see anyone down there.) When he looked at us, and came nearer, I began to feel nervous: as in, my heart beat harder. By this point, Lyra had begun to stare at him. She didn’t growl, but she gave a few “warning” barks (different from her greeting bark). I took her to the side of the path and called out to the man that I would hold her. He muttered “thank you” and went past us (in a wide circle) up the opposite hill.

In other words, if I could have, I’d have growled, barked,  or run fast. But why? What were my data? I was conscious of only a few facts: 1) he was white, 2) he was male, 3) he was a stranger to me, 4) his gait was slightly unbalanced, 5) his face was slightly red. Danger signs? Hardly. Gait and redness could have been due to the cold. Besides, while I was assaulted once (many years ago) by a male stranger, he lacked any of the other above characteristics. So why did I feel afraid?

Putting aside unknown factors — e.g., that I subconsciously smelled a “bad person” molecule (and if such exists, I missed it completely the few times it would have helped) — my response was irrational. Yet how often do I sigh, or feel annoyed, when Lyra reacts fearfully “for no reason” (answer: too often, though I’m getting better). Today, her bark seemed appropriate. But what, truly, was the difference? There was none — except that today her behaviour made me feel safe.

So, empathy — knowing that fear requires only the slightest air to leap into flame — can help me with Lyra, but only if I can apply it coolly. In that moment, in the ravine, my “feeling” of fear may even have fanned Lyra’s. The trick is to turn empathy into understanding — and perhaps that is the better word after all. If you look at the origin of both words: Empathy denotes feeling. Understanding denotes position. (Under had another sense in Old English; it was more like “proximity”. So if you understand, you stand in close range.) It’s not much good to Lyra if I feel fear — though of course I do — or even pity. But it does help if I stand by her; if I see her position as valid. Empathy helps, but it’s more of a starting ground than a desirable end (practically speaking).

This will sound crazy — but it can take a long time (months) to truly accept that your dog can’t help feeling scared. Sometimes you need repeat epiphanies. The goal is not to feel sorry for your dog, but to really “get” the fact that this will take a very long time. There is no quick fix. If someone said to me “here, take this pill and next time you see a strange man on a dark road, or coming towards you in a ravine, you will feel calm and happy,” I’d think “Yeah? Nice try.”

(NB. I like men, in general, and adore some in particular, and am grieved to have this fear; so I hope no one will take it personally — except the few crummy ones who won’t read this anyway.)


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