Wednesday, August 3, 2016

When I Don’t Feel Your Pain

Have you taken acetaminophen lately? It’s not surprising if you have, since 23% of Americans do so regularly. You may take it without realizing it, since it’s an ingredient in over 600 medicines.

I ask because I’m concerned about the seeming lack of empathy I perceive in many of us. Empathy is the ability to understand and share in someone else’s pain because you can imagine what their experience is like.

Evidently, acetaminophen may be partly to blame for our failure to empathize.

The results of a recent study conducted at Ohio State University seem to indicate that acetaminophen may reduce our ability to feel empathy. Basically, the study seems to show that people who take the drug have a reduced capacity to relate to someone else’s pain. Previous studies have shown that our experience of our own pain and of someone else’s pain affects the same part of the brain. So, if acetaminophen reduces our brain’s perception of our own pain, it stands to reason that it would also reduce our perception of someone else’s pain.

Acetaminophen isn’t the only culprit, though. Other factors can reduce our capacity for empathy. I’d like to mention only one possibility from a very long list: our unwillingness even to acknowledge, much less imagine, someone else’s experience.

There are about 7.3 billion people in the world, a number that’s expected to hit nine billion by 2050. There are 162 nations on the planet. While no one can say for sure how many ethnic groups there are, a good estimate is fifteen to twenty thousand. There are around seven thousand languages spoken around the world. There are just too many people, too many cultures, too many religions, too many histories, and too many experiences for us to know about, much less comprehend, them all.

On top of that, we all have the same handicap: we can have only our experience, and so we tend to see things only from our perspective. That’s just the way it is. Problems develop, though, when we let ourselves think, talk, and act as if our experience is normative—that all other experiences can and should be judged by it.

Take me, for example. I’m male, white, heterosexual, married, middle class, American, Southern, Christian, and educated. Everybody, thank God, isn’t the same as me. I mean, every other person who shares all of those characteristics with me has different life experiences than I do. There are different kinds of Christians and different kinds of education, for example.

So it’s not particularly surprising that I can neither relate to nor understand the experiences of someone who is black or Asian or Latino or female or single or homosexual or transgender or Iranian or single or poor or rich or Northern or Muslim or uneducated. We’re just different. That’s just the way it is.

Again, the problem comes when we judge all other experiences by ours. The problem becomes serious when we refuse even to acknowledge the validity of someone else’s experience. How can we move toward empathizing with their pain if we can’t even let ourselves admit that their experiences are just as real and legitimate—that they are just as human—as ours are?

We could use a little more empathy in this old world.

I’m not saying that we should stop taking acetaminophen.

And I’m not saying that we should stop being who we are—as if that’s even possible.

What I am saying is that we can better empathize with each other when we’re willing to see the validity of each other’s experience.

You’re not me and I’m not you.

But we are us …


dabar96 said...

This reminds me of the Casting Crowns lyrics from "City on the Hill"

Each one thought that they knew better
But they were different by design
Instead of standing strong together
They let their differences divide

And one by one, they ran away
With their made up minds to leave it all behind
And the light began to fade
In the city on the hill.

Charity said...

I came across this post originally in my newspaper, the Pike County Journal - Reporter. I enjoyed it very much, and appreciated the call to pay attention to our ability to empathize. I was saddened this week when another op-ed piece published in the same paper told me that there really was no such thing as empathy, that because we are all individuals that there is no way for us to truly empathize with each other, that we are capable, at best, of sympathy, but empathy just isn't humanly possible given our individuality. How silly a concept!! Why, if the ability does not exist, do we have a word for it in the English language? Of course it exists! Of course we ALL have the ability to place ourselves in another's shoes, it's a God-given ability, bestowed by the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that indwells in us all, that connects us all, that makes empathy a possibility. The will to have empathy is something else altogether. If you choose not to even try to put yourself in another's position you face the danger of being close-minded and closed-hearted, you face the danger of being willfully ignorant. I am sure that for each of us, it might be harder to empathize with some people than it is others, especially someone very different from you, but it is our responsibility as human beings to try. We must try and see other perspectives, for if we do not, we endanger our very core selves by becoming closed off and self-righteous, which can lead to fundamentalism and a lack of peace, and utter disregard for the very human lives around you, that all be they different, are just as valuable and deserving of dignity and respect as anyone that you know and can relate to.

Michael Ruffin said...

Thank you, Charity. I really appreciate it! You are aptly named ...

Michael Ruffin said...

“Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else's skin. It's the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.” (Frederick Buechner)