I think I might finally understand the true meaning of ”On a clear day you can
see forever”. I’m not talking about the Barbara Streisand version of the popular song which was a musical home run both on stage and movie screen. Instead I’m thinking about an idea this morning I want to call “extended empathy”.
What is it? It begins with the somewhat spiritual notion that of all the things we learn as human beings while we are so very busy in life 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 connect, relate to and “love others as ourselves”. This often cited religious prescription is more easily said than done. The idea of loving others
as ourselves and having ongoing compassion makes intuitive sense to just about anyone who is not a flaming megalomaniac or psychopath by nature.
When we hear about renowned figures like Jesus Christ or the Dalai Lama we instantly recognize someone who is highly refined in their ability to love and experience deep compassion. In contrast, psychopaths deviate both physiologically and psychologically from the rest of humanity in their fundamental inability to feel empathy, love 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 sympathy toward people who are hurting is our hard-wired human inheritance. Furthermore, it is not a matter of what we have that other species lack. It is what many animals have that we have EXTENDED. Somehow, over millions of years, human beings have evolved both in a social sense and in our genetically enhanced and modified brains to feel mercy, pity, sympathy, forgiveness, empathy and love. At first, our basic instincts like lust and 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 I just said may seem complicated, contradictory or obtuse, the actual feeling of loving someone and being afraid to lose them is well known to any decent parent, poet or star-crossed lover with a beating heart.
Most people want to keep on living and naturally fear dying, but any truly loving father,
mother or Leo Decaprio- like Titanic lover knows who they would willingly
hand over their “life preserver” to without question. It is not just old school chivalry, a well trained parental reflex or some military code governed heroism involving brave soldiers diving on a live hand grenade to save their comrades. It is an empathically derived human response to loving someone so very much that they would give anything to insure their loved ones continued existence.
The real “drama” in such a heartfelt and stirring scenario is not the “Sophies Choice” like
conflict or emotional ambivalence one might feel but rather the bittersweet clarity that comes from knowing that we as both sentient beings and 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 actually enjoy suffering in others or no longer feel any empathy for them they have not only lost the ability to love but have become the antithesis of what we were meant to develop. In addition, any “culture” in the past, present or future that promotes the opposite or espouses a reversal in such fundamental 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 apt 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 simple but accurate portrayal of the dualistic “forces” of human nature which compel us to ”do or not do”, especially when it comes to choosing our primary principles to live by as well as how to best use our Jedi-like powers of humanity.
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 greater empathy and compassion over the dark forces of insensitivity, callousness, greed and socially approved psychopathy makes me a cultural “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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nz5DLO8fclA
Jane Goodall and Guernica by Picasso
Good ones. You win the contest. No prize. Just bragging rights.