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How Could I Have Not Known?


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When this personal realization struck me today, I found myself literally trembling with awe, that something so basic and important to who I am is something different than I had realized?

 

I've shared some of my background as well as present circumstances of residence, being much immersed within conservative, fundamentalist leaning communties. And that I've struggled with relationships over my seeming mis-match with that all my life. I've so often tried to take the tack,to recognize they don't seem to be able (or sometimes even willing) to try to understand me, so I'll just have to work harder trying to understand them. Hoping, usually in vain, I could find some common ground where we could really communicate.

 

So many times in relationships from casual to close family, the wall that separated us seemed to be differennces in religious beliefs. I tried to understand and even rationalize it by such means as, well, that's just how they were raised, what they've been taught--all the while biting back the obvious, but so was I, so how and why have I turned out so different?--

 

I would think their ways of interpreting and applying scriptures to real life, too, was that's justwhat they've been taught, but then, so was I. Then there was the judgementalism, hyper-critical, even often scornful and belittling, that they defend as righteousness, but to me seemed just petty and unfair and cruel. And even more do they criticize one as me, for that difference, there are few accusations they spit out with more scorn that 'bleeding heart liberal.' Unless it's maybe "N" lover, or illegal wetback lover...

 

Then, there's much the same problems when it comes to social and political issues. Raised and living all my life in conservative, republican, redneck bible belt country, so why and how did I turn out progressive and democrat??

 

Why I've never seen this before, realized before, that none of this is about different beleifs, how any were raised, or any other "outside" factor...it's not about beliefs at all, I do not know!

 

Suddenly, today, I realized it's about a very basic core level difference in VALUES! The same core level values that underlie any and everything about us, our personality, our thoughts, our choices,our actions, most of all, how we are toward others. As that realization began to sink down over and into me, something even deeper, at an even more basic core level, came into my awareness of just what this difference of values itself arises out of, that is the root of even my values...

 

Empathy! I realized that at the very core of these differences that have made so many relationships difficult is for that my values are rooted in, grounded in, and arise out of empathy with others. Empathy is not a "for others" thing, but a "with others" thing. To experience WITH another, their joys, their sorrows, their accomplishments, their failures, their sorrows. Amd I am empathic to an extraordinary degree, have been all my life...it is at times a most difficult and painful and even sometimes confusing gift to bear.

 

How did I not know this? Over the years, among those that have been close to me, the few that really know me, the only "spiritual gift" any of them have ever told me they felt was mine, that was part of how they defined me, has been "the gift of Mercy." Even in that I had not seen the empathy as underlying it. I was looking at my kindness as something from the outside, events and teachings, maybe even sappy old fashioned tv programming and movies, in my childhood..but I realized that even kindness, when the result of external influence, is really nothing more than instilled sense of duty, and perhaps guilt. Only when kindness, patience, mercy, originate from something within, rather than without, and for me, that in which all those things in me are rooted, grounded, is empathy.

 

How did I not know that?

 

I do now. Thank you, Teacher, thank you for this understanding.

 

 

Jenell

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Jenell,

 

I think you would appreciate the book Moral Politics by George Lakoff. This is an important book and much more comprehensive that suggested by the title ('politics'). Lakoff has developed a model to explain our worldviews with the underlying values that make up liberal and conservative worldviews. As an example, empathy (which you discuss) would rank high as a value with liberals where personal responsibility would be an important value in a conservative worldview. These are often in conflict.

 

Lakoff demonstrates how these basic values motivate not only our political and social attitudes but he also has a chapter titled "Two Models of Christianity" in which the model is applied to religion. It should be no surprise that these same values motivate our religious attitudes as well.

 

Of course, few of us are pure liberal or conservative in our worldview and have overlapping values. But, this is a very useful model in understanding where someone (and where we) are coming from on various issues.

 

George

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I don't know that I could say the values of empathy and personal responsibilty are neccesarily at odds with, in conflict with, one another.

 

Actually, I often see how each is informed by the other. Both hold a high ranking within my sense of values. As empathy keeps me informed of how my actions might affect others, it helps guide my personal responsiblity. And as personal responsibility informs my actions arising out of empathy, it helps me keep in mind that the most loving act toward is to encourage their own personal responsiblity, versus dependency. And the most loving thing I can do is excerise personal responsiblity, in not depleting my own resources in the process of helping others, so that I can do as is possible to not become myself a burden on others.

 

When I took the Rel.Studies course "Christian Ethics" the theme of our term paper was God's love for us as model for Christian love for others as the foundation of the Chistian ethic. A major tension that must be dealt with in that is how we balance on one hand such passages of biblical text, especially NT, that seems to instruct us be willing to give our all to and help any others that are in need, with common sense, real life personal responsiblities. Are we really to be willing to give everything we have to feed the starving masses, without regard to meeting the real life needs of our family, our spouse and children? Are we really to respond to every homeless person we see on the streets, at the expense of loosing our own home that shelters us and our family?

 

All this comes down to a wise, but common sense balance between our responses arising out of empathy with those arising out of our sense of personal responsibility. There is nothing to be gained by pouring out so completely our own resources to the masses of the poor, so as to impoverish our own selves and join their ranks.

 

Also, the principle that for every good thing their is an evil counterpart pretending to be that good, can very much come into play in this. Values such as empathy and personal responsiblity have their counterfeit pretenders. This would get much into how and why we form and apply ego defenses. Just briefly, co-dependency, attention/approval seeking pseudo altruism, to name just several, can pretend to be of empathy. And selfishness, greed, arrogance, and a need to feel superior to others can masquarade as being responsible.

 

It's all such a delicate balance, in which all values must inform all others, and that is never easy.

 

Jenell

Edited by JenellYB
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I don't know that I could say the values of empathy and personal responsibilty are neccesarily at odds with, in conflict with, one another.

 

Jenell

One example would be programs for the poor. Predominance of empathy leads us support programs to help. Strong feelings about personal responsibility lead us to the view that poverty is the result of irresponsible behavior and that giving assistance only rewards and encourages personal irresponsibility.

 

I see this almost daily in letters to my local paper concerning the homeless. One view sees the homeless as lazy, irresponsible and unworthy of public assistance. The other view sees homeless people as victims of an unfair economic system, substance abuse, PTSD, etc. and deserving of help.

 

George

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George, I think your example of the homeless is a good example where the right path can only be found through finding that balance between empathy and compassion, and responsiblity. The two positions you cite both fail on the basis of sterotyping what is really a very mixed group. It is one of those situation in which each and every individual has different situations, problems, and needs. That's where most all of our attempts to deal with social issues with one-size-fits-all programs, instead of dealing with each person as an individual. Just throwing money or food and other goods out into the broken of society isn't personally helping someone, it's more like "chum" thrown out by fishermen to draw the sharks near the boat...

 

Honestly, I question if "compassion" for a nameless, faceless "group" (the poor, the homeless, the sick, the dying, the hungry children of the world) could be called compassion at all. It is all to easy for those to whom true compassion comes hard to, to make a neat tidy contribution to a program, a cause, and pat themselves on the back for their generous and caring heart, while turning a blind eye to the personal misery of individuals they pass by every day. I've even seen that when those suffering need were family members. I've gotten involved in efforts to help sick, even dying, elderly that had fallen into mental incompetence and severe poverty, even though they had close relatives, siblings, even their own children, that were respected as "generous givers" to their churches or pet charities and non-profits.

 

Empathy is personal, compassion is personal. It what presents itself as empathy orcompassion isn't personal, its a pretender, and imitation. Think of all the accounts of incidents and parables that Jesus spoke...many persons,individuals, were touched, blessed, healed. Did He ever mention fund raisers to help some nameless, faceless class of needy in a far away land? Empathy is felt, experienced, not rationally thought about. Compassion is a feeling, compassion demands we come down out of ivory towers, get our hands dirty, our heart broken.

 

Jenell

 

Jenell

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You know, sitting here just now, watching a special on the high profile story of Caylee Anthony's death...

People all over the nation are publicly mourning this child...the site where her remains were found is piled high with toys and candles and balloons. This was a child most of them never knew, or even knew existed before her dissapearance.

 

Yet few ever give thought to children in need, abused children in foster care, right in their own communities. In my current profile/avatar picture here, the little boy sharing a precious moment with my horse, is one of my two foster grandchildren, born to drug addicted abusive and neglectful parents, that have been with our family since they were one and two years old. This has been a "volunteer" foster, which many are, which means no "paycheck" from the government like so many seem to assume all foster parents get. My daughter and her husband are now entering the third year of court battle for full permanent guardianship. They are a middle class hard working family, one biological child already grown. There are thousands of such children here in our country. But actually doing something is a lot tougher than leaving porch lights on a certain evening, or placing teddy bears on a shrine...its to get your hands dirty and your heart broken.

 

Jenell

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Honestly, I question if "compassion" for a nameless, faceless "group" (the poor, the homeless, the sick, the dying, the hungry children of the world) could be called compassion at all. It is all to easy for those to whom true compassion comes hard to, to make a neat tidy contribution to a program, a cause, and pat themselves on the back for their generous and caring heart, while turning a blind eye to the personal misery of individuals they pass by every day.Jenell

 

Jenell

Jenell,

 

I realize that you are not suggesting an either/or approach, but I think we have slightly different views of this. While person-to-person help is wonderful and beneficial, I don't think this can solve large social and systemic problems. As an example, I cannot personally provide medical care to someone with serious medical issues requiring hospitalization, surgery, etc. But, I can, as a member of society, contribute my share to making sure that everyone has access to good medical care.

 

In the Talmud, there is a section about charitable giving in which the various types of giving are ranked. I don't recall all the types, but the lowest is any giving that is done grudgingly. The highest type of giving is that in which the donor is unknown to the donee and the donee is unknown to the donor.

 

Also, I remember reading somewhere that our intuitive sense of altruism is a function of distance. We are more inclined to help someone close by than many people suffering the same situation at a far distance. This is part of our evolutionary, genetic makeup. But, on an objective basis is this best? It is best for the survival of the tribe, but is it best for humankind?

 

George

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When a feeling is made rational it turns into a principle, but that is something else. Emotion gives us varying grades of intentsity. For some, the interplay of feeling and rationality gradually leads to a reverence for life itself.

 

Myron

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I live near the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. It is a memorial to the the Holocaust and an education center. When you enter the museum, you are given the name and background of a child who lived in a concentration camp. Initially, you are not told whether the child survived or not. Then you go through the various exhibits. The last stage, where you exit, is a reconstructed gas chamber, the real thing. If you can handle it, you are taken through the process ... then, as you exit, you enter the name of the child you were given into a computer and you find out whether he or she survived.

 

Myron

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When a feeling is made rational it turns into a principle, but that is something else. Emotion gives us varying grades of intentsity. For some, the interplay of feeling and rationality gradually leads to a reverence for life itself.

 

Myron

Myron,

 

I think a problem occurs when our intuitive values (feelings) conflict like empathy vs. personal responsibility. I think we often give rational reasons for our action, but it is the underlying dominant value that guides us.

 

George

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When this personal realization struck me today, I found myself literally trembling with awe, that something so basic and important to who I am is something different than I had realized . . .

 

 

Thank you for sharing thisJenell. It all boils down to love.

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George wrote.." I think a problem occurs when our intuitive values (feelings) conflict like empathy vs. personal responsibility. I think we often give rational reasons for our action, but it is the underlying dominant value that guides us."

 

Absolutely true. And sometimes, those rational reasons make sense. But I think it is better (for ourselves as well as others) when we have come to understand ourself well enough to know, conciously, when we do that. To really know what that underlying value is.

 

But also, I don't like how emotions and reason are cast as an either or, or even in conflict with each other. My emotions may give rise to the compassion and urge to help another, but my reason needs to guide just how that help best be accomplished. Or, as the case may be, reason sometimes needs to remind us how we really cannot afford the resources for it without hurting ourselves orother depending on us.

 

To continue the homeless matter, I will use as illustration how the nearest large urban city near me, Houston, has considered these very problems we touched upon here. Houston has an abundance of homeless shelters in operation to provide food, shelter, a bed, clothing, and even assistance with any needing it to file for any benefits, such as SS disablity, SSI, Veterans programs, etc. Homeless in such large urban areas have many resources available those in small towns, suburban or rural areas do not.

 

The Houston Police department will provide a free ride for any homeless person to one of the shelters. Yet still there are obviously many homeless living under bridges, often panhandling at intersections. Sometimes well-meaning people give them money or food at intersections.

Now, Houston campaigns publicly to ask people NOT to give to these panhandlers, with a reasonable explanation of why. All the shelters have strict rules against alcohol or illegal drugs used or possessed on their properties. There is room for these homeless there, but they choose to stay on the streets so they can continue to use alcohol or illegal drugs. some visit the shelters for meals, but don't stay there, instead using the panhandled money for alcohol or drugs.

 

This is to me a good example of reason informing compassion.

 

Jenell

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It has occurred to me that we went off-track somewhere in this thread, from empathy and compassion, to RESPONDING to, and to certain kinds of ACTIONS arising out of certain kinds of emotion.

 

Empathy is to experience wITH another, something they are experiencing. It is to hurt with them, cry with them, but also to celebrate with them. It is to share the same, or at least similar, emotion they are experiencing. While experiencing with them such emotions as pain, grief, sorrow, is empathy, any responding action we may be moved toward isn't the empathy itself.

 

So we can be in empathic sharing with another person's joy, excitement, satisfaction in accomplishment, as well as less pleasant emotions. And very often, even with less pleasant emotions, the situation does not neccesarily ask that we DO anything. Often, there is nothing we even could do. Such as when grieving with another for their loss, the only thing you can do is just be there. Let them grieve, let them know you know their grief, you care, you sorrow with them. You can't 'fix' the situation, so 'doing' isn't a consideration at all.

 

Likewise, someone that may be having some hard times in their life..they've lost their jobfor instance. Or they are suffering a painful condtion. You can empathize, sympathize, just be there, is sometimes what is really called for.

 

Sometimes the hardest thing is to be able to just listen, acknowledge how another feels, without feeling uncomfortable because there's nothing you can do, and you feel something is expected of you. That expectation is very often in yourself, not the other. Sometimes we all just really need someone that will listen, that will acknowledge our pain, and just be there, with no further expectation. But sometimes our need to feel we are in control of life gets in the way. We don't like feeling helpless, here's this person with terrible problems, and there's nothing realistically we can do. Yet we feel guilty because we can't. So maybe we start withdrawing from that person, not going around them so often, becasue we don't like that discomfort of feeling helpless. We may rationalize that by projecting onto that person an expectation of something done, when that may not be the case. That person probably knows there's nothing you can do, your withdrawal hurts them, because they usually sense your discomfort. They may misread that discomfort, as being you don't like them so much anymore, because they have problems.

 

It is often that sense of helplessness, that threatens out need to feel in control, and competent whatever arises, that causes people to withdraw from a hurting person. In addition to projecting their guilt at not being able to do anything by rationalizing, they are wanting something from me, other ego defenses may kick in as well, such as blaming the victim, it's their own fault, they need to get up do...whatever it is we think they should do to get out of their mess.

 

It is our own vulnerablity that is exposed to our own selves,when we see others suffering. We want to find a reason it is their own fault so we can avoid the reality that it could happen to us, too. It is almost certain that any person that develops cancer, especially when prognosis is not good, are going to be asked by more than one, "Why do you think you got cancer?" And those that ask don't even seem to hear what they are saying, how callous, cold, even outright cruel the underlying suggestion in that question is. If the victim smoked, or drank heavily, or whatever, its easy to dismiss them as worthy of compassion, because "they brought it on themselves."

 

Two and a half years ago, my younger sister passed away, after six long hard grueling years of aggressive continuous treatment, of ovarian cancer that wasn't diagnosed until stage four. That question came from so many family and aquaintances I almost began to get violent about it! "Well, why do you think you got ovarian cancer?" Sometimes there were hints of awful. ugly things, that she'd had multiple sex partners, was it because she'd "done drugs" as a teen? Was it because she'd not had children. or had to have a hysterectomy at 20 becasue of a tubal pregnancy that turned septic? And yes, was it because she smoked, or drank for some years?

 

Some find it all too difficult to just say, Oh, No! Oh, how terrible! And listen, let them pour it out, acknowledge their pain, let them know you care and love them.

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Jenell has brought up a good point. There are many instances where we cannot do anything - by ourselves. Sometimes we need a common effort. But there is another time when just "being there" for the other is of great value. I learned this when a close friend of mine commmitted suicide. His partner, my former partner, was devastated. I had read that the best thing to do in a situation like this is to just be there and listen. So that is what I did, even though there was a strong urge on my part to "do something". Later, my former partner thanked me for this. He said it make a big difference just to have someone listen. He told me that when others said something like "I know how you feel" he felt hurt ... No you dont't know how I feel!"

 

Myron

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This thread has turned from being a personal experience shared to general discussion on several points. I think far enough so, that it would be more appropriate to take up anything further along these lines in a new thread elsewhere, perhaps discussion and debate. None the less, what discussion has taken place here, I want those that have participated to know, has been relevant in a positive way to what I shared in my orginal post here, all of your input IS helping me to sort through and examine and in many cases refine, clarify, and even modify some of my beleifs and ways of thinking along these lines. It really is helping me do that decluttering process.

Jenell

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