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deconstructing and reconstructing empathy


One of my projects during the past four years has been to see my overexuberant empathy for what it really is. Along the way I've experienced a backlash against my empathy.

Although I'm made of the same star stuff that everybody else is made of, although we're all connected, although each of our actions affects the universe that we all live in, although it is possible that we all return to the same uber-soul after we die ... I'm still an individual with my own motivations, feelings, needs, and boundaries. I am limited in my abilities.

At some level, to continue living, to continue addressing my personal hierarchy of needs, I've got to look out for myself. I've got to look out for myself first. I might want to help other people, but if I don't first take care of myself, I won't be able to help other people. Perhaps there are extraordinary conditions in which I might sacrifice my life for others, but those conditions have not yet arisen, and probably won't.

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From years of experiencing an overexuberant empathy, I've learned that it is much easier to imagine that I know what somebody else is feeling, than to actually fix somebody else's feelings for them. Given a quota of energy, I can do much more empathizing than I can do fixing. Given the international Internet media explosion and my tendency toward media addiction, I can spend a large fraction of my personal energy empathizing with far more people than I can actually help.

So ... if I'm not actually helping somebody, what good is that empathy doing? If the empathy is focusing me on unhappy events that I can't do anything about, then that empathy is not only a waste of energy, it makes me unhappier than I have to be, which adds to the worldwide sum of unhappiness for no useful reason. An overexuberant empathy is therefore counterproductive. It transmits unhappiness while reducing the amount of available energy for the creation of happiness. It creates a world in which everybody is unhappy if anybody is unhappy.

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Along the way, I granted myself permission to make myself happy. I'm the person who has the most control over my own happiness. If I want to make the world a happier place, the most efficient use of my energy is to first work toward my own happiness. Then, if I have energy left over, I can work to increase the happiness of other people and sentient beings.

Spreading happiness can be labor intensive and difficult to measure. I've also learned that some people are resistant to the spread of happiness. By trying to make them happy, I'm wasting my energy. So, I've learned better how to identify happiness-resistant people, so I can stop wasting my energy on them.

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I think all of this explains why I've become more apathetic with regard to many causes and people and events that don't directly affect me, my family, or my friends. I'd much rather focus on throwing a party for my friends than go to a bar full of strangers. I'd much rather support a charity that my friends are likely to rely upon than help people in Africa. I'd much rather give money to somebody I know personally than to a bunch of politicians.

I'm reducing my sphere of empathy to better match my ability to affect and monitor outcomes that result from my own actions. I'm trying to focus on the efficient spread of happiness.


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