Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states
Do you empathize with the suffering of other people? Do you have compassion for those who are suffering? If I present two people to you, each of whom has the HIV infection and told you that “Person A” is homosexual and became infected as a result of homosexual activity, and “Person B” was infected as a result of a blood transfusion during surgery, which one would you empathize with: Person A, Person B, neither one, both of them?
Research shows that, to the extent to which we believe that someone is responsible for their problems, there is lots of blame and little empathy. The reverse is also true. So, for example, if w believe that addiction is a choice that then, there is little sympathy for that individual. In other words, the addict is to blame for his dilemma.
This is an important discussion because the ability to have compassion and to empathize with others is the basis of love, marriage and parenthood. Empathy allows parents to care about their children and want to provide a safe and nurturing environment for them to grow up in. Empathy motivates us to care for the sick and elderly and to look in on neighbors if they are having a crisis. It enables us to comfort and care for a crying baby.
There are those without empathy and compassion. They are referred to as people with the personality disorder called “Sociopathic or Anti Social Personality Disorder.” These are people who manipulate and exploit others with absolutely no sense of conscience or moral code what so ever.
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Most probably, empathy is something that results from human genetics and from early experiences during infancy and childhood. There is evidence that there is an inbred tendency towards empathy that shows itself by the second year of life. However, like all things human, the likelihood that empathy will be felt and expressed also depends on being raised by parents who provide the opportunity for the child to become attached. Activities such as feeding, touching, holding, caressing and caring for the infant and child all allow the child to become attached to others.
On the other hand, all too often, blame is used to stigmatize others and to provide excuses to refuse help in face of suffering. Returning to the hypothetical case of “Person A,” many of us become convinced that he is responsible for becoming infected with HIV and deserves what he gets. It’s a variation of the theme, “You made your bed, now sleep in it.”
The problem is that people do not fall into catastrophic situations by choice. No one chooses to be homosexual, or to become addicted or to develop lung cancer. It is easy to be judgmental and say that the person dying of lung cancer smoked and deserves to suffer.
Empathy is part of the glue that makes human relationships happen. We cannot survive without relating to others or without sometimes relying upon empathy from others when the going gets tough.
Your comments and questions are strongly encouraged.
Allan N. Schwartz, PhD
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