Empathy for All

I consider myself incredibly lucky to work in such an interesting field. Psychology has always fascinated me, but actually working with kids and families in my community has broadened my horizons even more than I could have imagined back when I was still in school. Given that I’ve struggled with social anxiety for the majority of my life, it seems strange to me that I would have such a good time working is social services. However, I’ve learned to be more fascinated than fearful of people. Even so, I also believe that I am on the autistic spectrum which I feel gives me an interesting perspective on interpersonal matters. I have always been able to set aside my emotions around a subject or situation fairly easily and act based on logic and facts rather than my feelings.

I’ve learned throughout my life though, that this analytical character of mine can often be seen as cold and calculating by those around me. Many times I have offered up an opinion about something that seems perfectly logical to me, but has been terribly shocking and offensive to others. For instance, a recent conversation I’ve had with a friend at work sticks out to me. We were discussing the idea of legalizing all drugs and illicit substances. We both agreed that at face value, this seems like a shocking and unethical idea. I think most people have a gut reaction to this proposal that causes them to condemn it right away. However, I have read the research on this idea from countries where similar policies have been implemented. It came as a surprise to me, but legalizing these substances actually has the opposite effect than you would expect. Rather than more people abusing drugs and overdosing, there are less instances of this behavior. This is because people are more easily able to reach out for help. There is less of a stigma surrounding drug abuse. People that use are also able to do so more safely than they are when it’s illegal, which results in less instances of overdose and infection.

After discovering this data, I was fully on board with legalizing all drugs. Even though my emotional reaction to the idea remained unchanged. It still felt like a bad idea, but I was confident in the science enough to overlook my personal biases. However, when I shared this information with my coworker, he refused to change his position on the matter. I asked him, “So you’re still against it even if it results in less drug abuse?” This seemed so interesting to me. That even highly intelligent people will often side with their emotions rather than the facts.

A similar discussion came up the other day at a meeting with people we work with on cases of child abuse. We began discussing the idea of virtual child pornography or child sex dolls. Of course the idea is repulsive. Everyone’s initial reaction is of disgust and condemnation. Yet, I remain convinced that if there is data that shows these things lessen the likelihood that actual children will be abused, then I think they should be allowed. I’m not aware that there is any such data. It could very well be the exact opposite. But even in this hypothetical situation, no one else would agree that this should ever be legal. Even if it stops children from being abused. Once again, I was left feeling amazed at the irrationality of these smart individuals.

I am careful to watch what I say, lest I upset anyone, but a lot of the time, I don’t find it as easy to condemn the alleged perpetrators as I feel I should. Obviously child abuse of any kind is inexcusable and all measures must be taken to protect children from these offenders. However, this doesn’t make me incapable of still feeling sorry for everyone involved. After all, a lot of pedophiles were once the innocent victims. This obviously doesn’t justify their crimes, but it does somewhat explain them. We are unable to just cast these people out of society. The fact remains that putting them in prison for ten years doesn’t solve the problem. They are very likely to go on offending as soon as they are released. The science has shown that as upsetting as it is, pedophilia is a sexual orientation. It is something that cannot be changed. These people must learn how to control these urges and understand that although they cannot control their thoughts, they are able to control their actions. If they are considered monsters by society for their thoughts alone, why wouldn’t they give in to their urges? There needs to be an effort to rehabilitate these people, not just punish them.

Often we will interview a child because they have been abusing other children. We won’t ask them about what they’ve done, rather we try to ascertain whether or not something has happened to them that is causing them to act out this abuse on others. I think it’s very interesting that when a child hurts another child, we still feel empathy and compassion for both of them. It makes me wonder at what point we draw the line. When does a troubled child become an unforgivable adult? Does the limit of our compassion end at eighteen? Why do we make that distinction?

I find it hard to make sense of this divide, even though I do feel it viscerally within myself. It is much easier to vilify an adult than a child for the same crime. At the same time it seems illogical to arbitrarily make a decision that someone isn’t culpable at 16 but they are at 18. How exactly were they expected to “fix themselves” now that they are legally an adult? This atmosphere of shame and condemnation only makes it harder for the “undesirables” in society to seek help. Apparently in the U.S. you may be reported to the authorities for even mentioning you feel sexually attracted to minors to your therapist, even if you’ve never acted on those urges.

At the end of the day, despite our feelings on these difficult matters, we need to act and make decisions in a way that results in the best outcomes for society as a whole. Sometimes it may end up to be something that at face value seems counterintuitive. But we’ve got to learn to look past our emotional impulses and trust the data. I certainly don’t know all the answers to these very challenging questions. I just hope that we can be objective and open as we continue to search for those answers.

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I Will Be Grateful for This Day

I will be grateful for this day.

I will be grateful for each day to come.

– Bright Eyes

After watching the devastating documentary, Seaspiracy, on Sunday, I feel as though I was given a death sentence. I imagine it feels similar to going to your doctor and being diagnosed with a terminal illness. In some ways it’s not that bad. I should at least have a few decades rather than only a few months or years. Additionally, I’ll hopefully be able to enjoy good health up until that point. However, in other ways it is worse. A terminal illness is merely a personal end. Whereas, this will result in the end of all life. Certainly all human life.

I actually cried on my drive to work this morning. I was overwhelmed with the beauty of the trees and the grass on the side of the highway, the cows calmly grazing in the fields, the sun, the atmosphere, the air we breathe. How much longer do I have to bask in the absolutely majesty of these things? How much time have I spent allowing myself to be distracted by insignificant nonsense? Why have I continued to waste my time and energy on anything other than love?

It is really hard for me to fully wrap my mind around all the information I now have. I feel as though I need to start living each day as if it were my last. How exactly do I do that though? That has been my issue. Even with death hanging over my head, it is still surprisingly hard to let go of all of my ridiculous habits. It feels like I have been primed since childhood to plan for the future. We are all encouraged by our schools, by our families, to make decisions and go about our days in ways that will benefit us in the future. Being able to delay gratification is a coveted and admired character trait. Years of living each day with my mind in the distant future, has made it quite hard to be comfortable just living in the present moment.

I don’t want to waste any more of the limited time I have to love and be loved on this dying planet in the middle of the vacuum of space. I have been reminding myself to be grateful for every moment. I am even going to invest in some books about coping with death and mortality. I was actually somewhat excited and relieved when I realized that these types of resources might be able to help me. For years now I have been struggling with how to seek help for myself given that most people don’t take my concerns seriously. Viewing this as a terminal illness has really allowed me to open my eyes to the vast amount of self-help materials that are out there for me.

Yesterday, my mother, who is skeptical about all of this data, asked me what the point of people making these documentaries is if we are all doomed anyway? I’ve been taking some time to think about that myself. It seems like the people that make these films somehow still hold out hope that we will be able to come back from this. I personally think they are in denial. However, even though I believe we no longer have a chance to change things, I still feel the need to spread this information and share it with those around me. I didn’t really understand why I felt it was important to do that though.

After giving it a lot of thought, I’ve decided that it is still important to get this information out there even if nothing can be done. It is important because I think people have the right to know this information. Most won’t believe it, but that’s their choice. I just want to make sure that for those that are willing to accept this data, they are given the opportunity to know about this harsh reality. Perhaps this will give them the motivation to live these final years in a more meaningful way. Maybe others will have moments of simple joy and happy tears just from the sight of trees and grass like I did this morning. Either way, I believe that knowledge is important in its own right. Reality matters.

For me, I am going to use this grim information to inspire me to live what remains of my life in a way I can be proud of. I want to give away all the love I have within me before my time is up. I want to be helpful and make a difference in the lives of those around me, those I care about. I want to savor each sweet moment of experience on this beautiful Earth. I’m going to spend more time outside in the sun, feeling the cool soil beneath my feet. I’m going to spend more time with my loved ones. I may not be able to save the world, but I can save myself by being grateful for the time I have.

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