I Feel Your Pain

“he never did anything to me, it’s true, but I once played a most shameless nasty trick on him, and the moment I did it, I immediately hated him for it.”—Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (1880)

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“I feel your pain.”—Bill Clinton

Hanging around with kids last summer made at least two things clear to me: (1) Children over the age of ten learn far more from each other than they do from us. Jean-Jacques Rousseau made precisely this point long ago in Émile (1762): “The lessons pupils get from one another in the schoolyard are a hundred times more useful to them than everything they will ever be taught in class.” (2) The things you learn about human nature from watching kids play and fight, in a largely unstructured environment, are a hundred times more useful than everything you will ever be taught in a philosophy class. The following episode is a case in point: Two kids were playing a makeshift version of King of the Castle outside of Lionel-Groulx metro station whilst we all waited for the 485 bus. Let’s call them Tom and Jerry.

Tom got a little too rough and pushed Jerry off the garbage can. Jerry landed face first on the pavement. Although he wasn’t seriously hurt, Jerry was winded and, quite understandably, upset. Tom’s face fell. Clearly it was an accident. He didn’t mean to hurt him. Indeed, Tom winced and recoiled immediately, reflexively, as if he were the one in pain—viz., he had a knee-jerk empathetic response. Seeing Jerry in pain caused him pain. My former student Lee Mellor would say that this is definitive proof of at least one thing: Tom is not a sociopath. In Cold North Killers: Canadian Serial Murder (2012), Mellor maintains that sociopaths lack the moral emotions that give rise to knee-jerk empathetic responses. But he also maintains in his more recent book, Rampage: Canadian Mass Murder and Spree Killing (2013), that most murderers aren’t sociopaths, and most sociopaths aren’t violent. This is an important point, which seems too often forgotten in the midst of our current love affair with empathy.

Books like Frans de Waal’s The Age of Empathy (2009) and Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilization (2010) have led many within the chattering classes to conclude that a dramatic increase in our capacity for empathy would—necessarily, and as a matter of course—lead to a dramatic decrease in violence, suffering, and strife. If we could all just say, in the immortal words of Bill Clinton, “I feel your pain” (and mean it), we could escape the nightmare of history and enter the promised land of the future: a land that flows with peace, prosperity, and positivity. Tom’s response to Jerry’s pain—or, more specifically, to his own empathetic response to Jerry’s pain—makes me deeply suspicious of this kind of millenarian optimism. As I said, Tom isn’t a psycho. Not at all. He’s a totally normal kid. His friend’s pain caused him visceral discomfort. But it didn’t cause him to apologize or try to make amends. All to the contrary, he got mad at him. It’s not a pretty response, but, as Dostoevsky well knew, it’s an altogether human response. Most of us, I’ll wager, have experienced it more times than we’d like to admit.

Being a good person consistently without a well-developed capacity for empathy is, I imagine, sort of like trying to navigate without a compass: doable but at times difficult. So Rifkin and de Waal are right to highlight its importance. But empathy clearly isn’t enough. Feeling your pain isn’t enough. I have to do something about it. What’s more, as the psychologist Paul Bloom rightly observes, in “The Case Against Empathy,” especially empathetic people aren’t necessarily nicer or more helpful than people who score low on empathetic capacity. In fact, the opposite is often true. To some extent, this is due to the fact that exceptionally empathetic individuals are, on average, far more prone to burnout and depression (feeling everyone else’s pain takes its toll, alas). But Bloom suggests that the truth may be darker still, because those who are exceptionally adept at “feeling your pain” are also, it seems, exceptionally susceptible to political manipulation. It’s relatively easy, for instance, to get these delicate flowers to support your immoral foreign war: just show them some graphic atrocity footage (doesn’t have to be real, but it’s gotta be on CNN). It’s also, I hasten to add, relatively easy to get these sensitive souls to withdraw their support for a morally justified military campaign (a just war): once again, just show them some graphic atrocity footage. In short, argues Bloom, the empathetic civilization people like Jeremy Rifkin long for, characterized by skyrocketing levels of empathy, would in all likelihood be the very opposite of the best of all possible worlds.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2015)

p.s. Tom apologized to Jerry on the 485 bus and all was forgotten. Truly forgotten. If only adults could forgive and forget as flawlessly as ten-year-old boys do.

About John Faithful Hamer

John Faithful Hamer is a college professor who still can't swim, drive, or pay his bills on time. His sense of direction is notoriously unreliable, yet he'd love to tell you where to go. His lack of practical skills is astounding, and his inability to fix things is renowned, yet he'd love to tell you what to do. His mismanagement of time is legendary, as is his inability to remember appointments, yet he fancies himself a philosopher and would love to tell you how to live. He wouldn't survive in a state of nature, of that we can be sure; but he's doing quite well in the big city, which has always been a refuge for the ridiculous, a haven for the helpless, and a friend to the frivolous.

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