Friday, June 29, 2012


Recently, I read an article about the (ab)use of railways in the nazi genocide. Now, there is a lot to say about that, but I would like to focus on one specific half-sentence that spoke of the jews "...whose biographies didn't count in that murderous nazi system".

I think that there is more wisdom in these few words than, probably, even their own writer was aware of.

When we start to listen to what other people have to say about their own lives, this creates empathy. It does so automatically, perhaps by way of our mirror neurons firing away. Whatever the mechanism, I think that it is next to impossible not to develop that empathy - provided you actually listen to the other person, instead of silently judging and negating their every word.

Have you ever noticed how people will sometimes say, "I'm NOT AT ALL INTERESTED in your problems!"

My guess is that, when we do that, we fight with all our power, in order to avoid that empathy. Because we think that it will weaken us. Because it gets pretty damn hard to sack that employee, denounce that bitchy secretary, walk away from that beggar, press that poison needle into that death row prisoner's arm, or to kill off that jew like he was sub-human, once you have started to understand their motivations and their lives. Once you've seen their old childhood photos, read their first love letter, heard tales of their marriage, and how worried they were when their firstborn son had this accident with his bicycle, or suffered from the measles and wouldn't recognize his own mother in his high fever.

Now, I'm not saying that empathy with others is always, at any time, the best option. We have to care for ourselves first. "If you can't help yourself, you can't help others" is a very wise saying indeed - of buddhist origin, as far as I know. If I give my money to every beggar who approaches me on the street, I'll be out of money soon, and probably won't have achieved all that much.

But empathy is what keeps us from becoming monsters, our fellow men's wolves, genocidal True Believers.

And there is yet another good news: Empathy is like a muscle. It can be practiced.

And I wholeheartedly believe that we all could use some more of that practice!

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