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Deepening Lesson for Listening to Psyche

“Empathy is the prime inhibitor of human cruelty,” says Daniel Goleman, author the classic book Emotional Intelligence. When we’re unable to experience empathy, there is no fellow-feeling. Without the ability to sense the struggles of other people, we lack the motivation to help where we can, offer comfort when possible, and avoid exacerbating the pain of others through our insensitivity.

In the small communities where our ancestors lived, empathic connections were immediate and recognizable. Our emotional apparatus evolved when the average met approximately 150 people in her entire lifetime. Learning to respond to a small group of neighbors, our early forebears were well-equipped to recognize others in distress (primarily through face-to-face contact), “feel their pain,” and come to their aid when possible. 

Unfortunately, the global information age has overwhelmed this empathic apparatus, barraging us 24/7 with images of human devastation on a heretofore unimaginable level. Abstracted from the pain they encounter (unable to respond face-to-face), many struggle today with “empathic distress,” a species of emotional burnout that leaves a person exhausted, defeated, and numb. How is it possible to “feel the pain” of funeral-goers killed by terrorist bombs, boatloads of refugees drowned in the sea, children dying of starvation by the thousands, innocent men and women murdered for their blackness, or the 600,000-plus people who’ve lost their lives to Covid-19?

The answer is: we can’t. Not because we’re callous, unkind, or First-World snobs, but because of our physiology. We are simply not “wired” to identify with suffering on this scale – we haven’t developed yet the capacity to feel empathy for so many complete strangers on a daily basis. Here are a few prompts to help you explore this emotional paradox:

  • Confronted by global suffering, do you tend to feel grief stricken, guilty, overwhelmed, resentful, numb, angry, or empathic? How do these feelings affect your behavior?
  • In situations with people you know, are you able to be empathic without “taking on” their pain? If so, how does this happen?  If not, why not?  Be specific.
  • Is self-compassion a challenge for you? Do you blame yourself for your own pain – or are you more prone to self-pity?  Explore this dynamic in relation to a specific situation in your life today.
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Thank you Mark for your words of wisdom. Confronted with global suffering I am fatigued in body and soul. I have psyche exhaustion. It is as if everywhere I look there is trauma. I worry so much about people in countries that cannot absorb the global shocks as those of us in the West do, as difficult as it is for us. The uncertainty of it all is unnerving. I wonder about what is to come. I have stopped watching the news on television. I read that some of the more popular news shows are making more in profit than they ever have before. I believe you said the human tendency is to look for the negative, apparently we are also willing to pay for it.

I remember asking a Buddhist teacher in the 1980's, a tumultuous time with it's own horrors, what to do in the face of overwhelming fear and she said, "Right action". One cannot take responsibility for anything but what is within our own sphere of influence. I find some comfort in her words. 

I am blessed with kind friends and family who reassure me and allow me to do what I have to do to feel safe. I am glad to have the Seekers Forum as a respite for reflection and healing.


First, thank you Mark. I read an article about you in a Unity magazine, and here I am.

Having been in a biblical patriarchial marriage for 23 years and having 7 children, I've now been divorced for 7 years. I'm having to re-learn everything I was taught. Because in fundamentalism, I believed we were the ONLY way to god, and that way of thinking leaves no room for compassion or empathy. I am having to make my own bridges of understanding. I love Jesus so, but I choose not man's rules for Christianity. I see now, Jesus was and still is, my constant pursuer and lover of my soul...we have a joyous time together as he is always making me laugh. 

Learning empathy, I'm not quite there yet. I'm not sure where I am....but I'm doing better than I was 4 years ago and 6 months ago! I hold my kids much more, and I greatly enjoy talking to strangers, and I cry almost every day at the simplest of things....a butterfly in the garden, a sunset, a sibling helping another feminine is wild and raging within me. I was always taught to be quiet and submissive, now I find I cannot be quiet when excitement is called for, nor submit to any injustice, and I honor my feminine nature in ways I have not before.

My older kids work and or go to school, and the 3 youngers I homeschool. I spend long days at home with my family, visiting my elderly neighbors across the street and only working 10-15 hours a week outside the home. This global suffering has ignited within me a desire to pray for my neighborhood, city, county, state, country, and all other continents. I'm feeling the energy of my ancestors, who have gone before me....and I don't even know how any of that works; yet every day I am understanding more, appreciating more, and experiencing more ease. 

Thanks so much for this "BlestMamma" (I wish I knew your first name!).  It sounds like you are coming into your own -- truly -- as an independent, free-thinking woman who can love God (including Jesus) the way she sees fit!  Your "wild and raging" feminine, feeling "the energy of the ancestors" -- these are signs of vitality, freedom, and courage that will only deepen your wisdom and help you along your path.  As for "not being there yet" when it comes to empathy, all forms of love are works-in-progress, as you know. Being aware of one's limits, quirks, and biases puts your ahead the game already!  So glad to have you here in The Seekers Forum!