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Developing Empathy: How Community and Cooperation Can Reinforce Understanding and Compassion


R. Berger, Sketchbook Project 2012 Brooklyn Art Library

Dear readers,

In this post, I would like to explore the notions of honesty, trust, compassion, integrity, and empathy.  These are all good, hearty qualities that I think all decent people would like to at least try to incorporate in their lives.  In any given society or country, I think there is always a percentage of highly evolved and compassionate individuals as well as a percentage of less compassionate, more self-absorbed individuals.  For a variety of reasons, it seems to me as if pathological narcissism and even sociopathic behaviors are on the rise, in particular in the United States.  I believe that at least in part, cultural reasons are responsible for this phenomenon.

I would like to describe some of my personal experiences in this country, and relate these experiences to a book I read about two years ago called “The Sociopath Next Door” by clinical psychologist Dr. Martha Stout.  I feel the spirit of cooperation is a predominantly feminine value, while the spirit of competition is primarily masculine. This does not mean that men cannot be cooperative or that woman cannot be competitive or that either tendancy is better or less important than the other.  Rather, it signifies that each set of energies comes from a different pole and perspective, and that to experience balance in society, we need an equilibrium between the two.  Checks and balances with equal importance granted to masculine and feminine energies allow us to keep our societies on a fairly even keel, if we constantly allow each polar representative to express him or herself when differences arise.  In Capitalist, free market societies, competition predominates, and cooperation is frustrated.  Masculine values dominate, causing predation, loss of integrity, loss of respect for word, for transcendance, for nurturing, self-sacrifice, and empathy for others. 

Today, corporations and banks have taken over much of our government, our sources of employment, our sources of energy, food, fresh water – everything that we need to survive and bring meaning to our lives is controlled or heavily influenced today by corporations. Messages disseminated through the media and advertising influence and distract us, absorbing our time, energy, power, and personal potential for growth, if we allow them.  It is important for individual citizens to seek out information and be a vital counter-force in society against abuses in government and corporate power structures if we are to maintain some level of democracy, personal freedoms, and balance in society, whether it be economic, emotional, or spiritual.  While some corporations may seek to create a democratic environment, this is a small exception to the rule.  My experience over the last 8 years living in the United States has been that many individuals feel no need to back up their word with their actions. I have encountered so many individuals who feel perfectly justified and guiltless when it comes to taking what they want from others, from me.  They are charming and ruthless.  It is considered acceptable to take advantage of another person’s weakness if you can profit from that weakness and get away with it.  The entire society is permeated with this attitude of semi-concealed deviance and selfishness.  Government leaders wonder why American society is so violent. I believe the reason is an implicit permission for behaviors that promote personal gain over cooperation and empathy, as well as the absence of transcendance and true meaning in our lives.  There is no popular living example, symbolic or real  in America of a path based on integrity, compassion, self-responsiblity, and search for soul.  People feel this absence, but they do not know how to express it, because it is voiced as an ache, a lack, an emptiness.  The emptiness is filled with objects.  Empty people: narcissists and sociopaths are king in this society.  Individuals with this type of personality are not able to feel  empathy for others, and a free market society rewards those who can take advantage of others for personal or for corporate gain.  Intelligence is used to pillage.  There is no apology needed.  Sociopaths thrive in this environment.  They are not murderers or child predators for the most part.  They are the men and women who work in offices, and like the book explains, one in 24 individuals is born a sociopath.  He or she may live next door to you.

In countries where individualism is not valued as much, and where the community is more important than the individual person, sociopathic behaviors are kept in check.  Even if the same number of children with sociopathic tendancies are probably born in each country.  Because these behaviors are discouraged from a very young age, and young children who lack empathy are still taught to suppress their personal desires and to conform to group values, there is less violence of this type.  The group or community keeps these negative individual tendancies in check.  Cooperation allows the group to flourish and the sociopathic individuals are still able to function in society as normal citizens.  The author of book mentions Japan as an example of such a society.

I think this concept is very interesting and relevant to my theme of the balance of masculine and feminine energies.  It is fascinating to contemplate that society can bring meaning to individual and group life by modulating the talents, personalities, and even maladies or destructive tendancies of individuals to benefit both the individual person and the group.  An excess in either direction can be malicious and destructive.  A collectivity must always work to be aware and keep all elements in balance. This requires great vigilance, creativity, and self-awareness of individual members.

Sociopathic individuals are great charmers.  They lack the ability to feel compassion for others, yet they are talented actors, with an innate gift for detecting the weak points in their victims.  A person who is sincerely kind or generous can easily be duped.  I am not saying that we should become paranoid or avoid contact with others lest we become victims.  Rather I am saying we should consider as a people and a culture which values we would like to promote for our children and for our groups – and how we can work together to create balance between the values of masculine and feminine.  This is a constant and never-ending practice, and awareness of this fact is a step in the direction of increased peace, expression of personal freedoms, cooperation, and above all – awareness of self and others.

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