I think I might finally understand the spiritual meaning of ”On a clear day…you can
see forever”. No, I’m not talking about the Barbara Streisand version of the hit song which is admittedly a musical home run. I am thinking about an idea this morning I call “extended empathy”.
What is it? It begins with the belief that of all the things we can learn as human beings while we are so busy, bored, growing old and eventually dying, extending empathy to others is the most useful and significant.
Having empathy and attempting to establish a heartfelt understanding is the very basis of our ability to relate to and “love others as ourselves”. This often cited spiritual and religious prescription is more easily said than done. The idea of loving others
as ourselves and having compassion makes intuitive sense to just about anyone
who is not a megalomaniac or psychopath by nature.
When we hear about Jesus Christ or the Dalai Lama, for example, we instantly recognize someone who is highly refined in their personal ability to love and experience compassion. In contrast, true psychopaths deviate both physiologically and psychologically from the rest of humanity in their fundamental INABILITY to feel empathy or compassion. If you dont believe me check out the newest research below. It’s the neuroscience of empathy and scientifically speaking its pretty hot stuff.
From an evolutionary perspective, recognizing pain in others and experiencing a sense of discomfort and aversion toward people who are hurting is our hard-wired human inheritance. Furthermore, it is not what WE have that other animals lack. It is what many animals have that we have EXTENDED. Somehow, over millions of years, human beings have evolved both socially and in our genetically enhanced brains to feel mercy, pity, sympathy, forgiveness, empathy and love. At first, our basic instincts like lust and perhaps disgust were easy emotions to feel. Both are instinctive “reactions”, part of our reptilian brains early beginnings. Love was a more difficult concept to achieve. To feel love one must feel both bonded and fearful of losing the object of ones love and affection. That’s something a philosopher might call an inherent paradox. While the words may at first seem sort of complicated, the actual feeling of loving someone and being afraid of losing them is well known to most every decent parent, poet and star-crossed lover.
Most people want to keep living and naturally fear dying, but any truly loving father,
mother or Leo Decaprio- like lover (think Titanic) knows who they would willingly
hand over their “life preserver” to. It is not just chivalry, a well trained parental
reflex or some honor code governed behavior, like a “good” soldier
diving on a live hand grenade to save his comrades. It is an empathically
derived human response to loving someone so much that they would give
anything of themselves to insure their loved ones continued existence.
The real “drama” in such a scenario is not the “Sophies Choice” like inner
conflict or guilt one might feel but rather the bittersweet clarity that comes from
knowing that we as sentient beings and as a life-affirming species can actually want to give that much of ourselves for the sake of a loved one. When human beings lose their individual or collective ability to be compassionate or when they begin to enjoy suffering in others (or no longer feel any real empathy for them) they have not only lost the ability to love, but have become the antithesis of what we were meant to further develop in ourselves. In addition, any “culture” that promotes the opposite or espouses a reversal in such humane values and spiritual truths is not only “God-less” and barbaric, but has truly turned to the “dark side” of human nature. Apocalypse Now, much?
Need another movie metaphor? Star Wars is not so much an action packed cinematic expression of computer enhanced graphics and science fiction fantasy as it is a rather simplistic but accurate portrayal of the dualistic “forces” of human nature, one of which compel us to ”do or not do”, especially when it comes to choosing our primary principles and utilizing our Jedi-like powers.
When we choose “wisely” and apply our full capacity for extended empathy, we are literally able to move mountains for the sake of goodness and love. If espousing a psychology of empathy and compassion over the dark forces of insensitivity, callousness, and socially approved psychopathy makes me a “rebel”, a Pirate psychologist, or some kind of “evolutionary revolutionary” with a cause, then call me CaptCliff the arthritic Jedi Knight and Jewish Pirate. Arrrgh!
Homework Assignment: Name two graphic images (or people) that come to mind when you think of the idea of compassionate love and extended empathy. Jesus and the Dalai Lama dont count….They’re already taken.
Barbara Streisand belts it out of the park: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nz5DLO8fclA