An Etiology of My Lack of Empathy

Marcus Borg’s translation of Luke 6:36 reads like this: “Be compassionate as God is compassionate.” Compassion, for the Jews, meant something similar to “womb-like.” It meant a visceral feeling that was the result of another’s distressing situation. Martin Hoffman, a psychologist that studies in moral psychology, calls this visceral feeling empathy. Whatever this feeling is called, it is clear that much of the time I don’t have it.

For someone who wants to love like Love, this is obviously a problem. I think I have actually made some progress towards truly experiencing empathy, but I have still got a long way to go. Some research into empathic development has been helpful. I have previously identified 2 causes in particular that I think contribute to my lack of empathic response to distressing situations: my lack of attention to the visual cues which typically arouse empathy via mimicry and feedback and my arrogance in thinking that I would not have similar feelings if “I was in his/her shoes,” which stops empathic arousal via the self-focused role taking mode.

Today, I would like to identify a third cause. It is not something that is discussed explicitly in Hoffman’s work (to my knowledge anyway), but it seems to be effecting my affect nonetheless: I seem reluctant to see stimuli as actually indicative of other’s distressful internal states, i.e., take the other’s distress seriously. I invent other reasons to explain the other’s appearance of distress, and this happens almost automatically. Empathic affect, then, is obliterated from the “top-down,” i.e., from higher order cognitive processes (viz., an analyzation of the “objective” status of a person’s internal state) to more basic processes (viz., automatic empathic responses).

How do I combat this? How do I fight this unloving thing within me? How do I change my very patterns of thought that are almost automatic? I do not know, but being aware of it in the first place is a good first step.

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