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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Growing Pains

Perhaps many things inside you have been transformed; perhaps somewhere, someplace deep inside your being, you have undergone important changes while you were sad.

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

I think a lot of people who suffer from depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses often have the impression that these disorders have wasted days, months, even years of their lives. I certainly have been feeling that way, this year especially. Looking back on 2020, it seems like I didn’t accomplish anything. The whole year flew by in an isolated haze of anxiety and self-destructive behaviors. And I don’t think I’m alone in my view of this year given the global pandemic and the negative mental health consequences many are experiencing because of it.

The other day I stumbled across the quote included above, and it helped me to challenge this perspective. Perhaps the many days that were shrouded in depression and anxiety weren’t wasted after all. I mean, I certainly would not be who I am today without them.

When I was younger, I used to think bad experiences ruined you. But now I sort of think those experiences are what create the best among us. Has there ever been a truly inspiring, talented human being that has not known great suffering? While there is certainly a lot we lose in times of despair, I think we also gain quite a lot.

Personally I think I would be insufferable if not for the hardships I’ve dealt with in my life. I would be much more arrogant, selfish, and coldhearted. My struggles and suffering have humbled me considerably. They have given me immense empathy and understanding. Things I don’t know if I would have developed otherwise.

These times of depression and doubt were important, crucial even. The suffering we feel is simply growing pains. It is a needed dose of tough love from the universe. It makes us stronger, wiser, more caring. On the surface it may appear that this time is being wasted, but underneath significant changes are taking place.

This realization may not make these times in our lives any easier, but I hope it can at least provide some small comfort. Days spent in bed feeling defeated are not days wasted. Allow yourself this time. You are not broken. You are not ruined. You are not a waste. You are growing. You are healing. This suffering is a burden, but it can also be a blessing if we choose to learn from it.

Your worth is not determined by your ability to be productive. There is value in every experience, not just the pleasurable ones. So try to be gentle with yourself. It’s okay to spend a year resting. Take as much time as you need. It is not a waste.

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Humans Aren’t Bad, Our Systems Are Bad

The more I read of Daniel Quinn’s work, the more I start to embrace humanity’s potential. As I’ve stated in other posts, I’ve always felt a stronger kinship with other species than I have with my own. It is hard to feel as loving toward humans when we are constantly bombarded with news and real life examples of people at their worst. It makes us start to believe that humans must just be inherently flawed, selfish, ignorant, violent beings.

However, learning about the ways in which the societal systems we’ve built up throughout the centuries affect us is beginning to change the way I see my fellow humans. We are all the product of our environments. I do believe we have free will to a certain extent. But the choices we can make are limited by a lot of factors. A major one of those factors, I’ve come to realize, is our society itself.

Now I believe that if humans were still living within the same structure of community we once did, a more natural one, we would be just as innocent and lovable as other animals. I may even believe that other animals could become as disturbed as humanity is if placed in the same detrimental systems we’ve placed ourselves within.

I hope that this new perspective will help me be more gentle and loving towards other humans. Now that I can clearly see the bars of our collective prison, it’s harder to blame anyone for their poor choices or violent actions. In reality, crime, poverty, severe mental illness, famine, corruption, these things are not natural parts of humanity. They don’t reflect who we are as a species. They are merely the symptoms of a larger problem. Our systems. Our systems of government and the ways we have all been conditioned to live.

I have felt like a victim of these systems for so long. I’ve desperately wanted to escape into the forest and leave this life behind. Live close to the earth as I feel we were all meant to. Yet for some reason, I didn’t think that was a normal desire. I felt like an outlier. That most people were comfortable and happy with the way humanity has been heading. And maybe a lot are. But that doesn’t change the fact that my instincts turned out to be right. We aren’t made to live in this way. It brings out the worst in us. It makes us hurt one another. It causes mental illness, aberrant behaviors, endless suffering, subjugation, environmental devastation, mass extinction, war, hunger, disease, death, etc.

I can no longer find blame in any individual now that I see the true error of our society. One that no one person created or decided upon. One that was thrust upon all of us. One we feel powerless to change. One we wouldn’t really know how to fix if we wanted to at this point. We are all in this mess together. And it’s no one’s fault. I don’t have the answers to these problems. I don’t even really believe we have enough time to fix them before we’ve damaged the earth beyond the point at which it can support us.

What I can do is be kind while I’m here. I can stop seeing the worst in people. I can stop harshly thinking “they should know better,” “they should be better.” Instead I can acknowledge and focus on the good, that glimmer of animal innocence inside all of us. Instead I can think “thank you,” “you are doing your best with what you’ve been given.” Because in the end I do believe that’s true. We are all doing our best. The fact that hasn’t been good enough for me a lot of the time made me think humans were the problem. Now I finally see that is not the case.

From now on when I see another human, I’ll think about Pitbulls. They are not bad dogs. They are not mean dogs. They are simply a product of their experience and their environment. And just like with Pitbulls, even the ones trained to be dangerous, I will love them anyway.

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