For some of us in the human realization game, the high water mark of our development is empathy. Some may fear that this is some new crackpot liberal conspiracy idea to make sure that the Taliban take over America and get rid of Dick Cheney and the Tea Partiers.

Others might claim that empathy is a value held in high regard in that old canard, our Judeo-Christian ethics. As religious philosopher Karen Armstrong tells us, it is the unifying idea in every religion. It is popularly known as the Golden Rule.

Yet though just about anyone would agree that Jesus was one compassionate dude, empathy is being looked on with suspicion by certain upstanding Americans. On June 28th, Elena Kagan was vetted by the United States Senate to determine if she was suitable to join the Supreme Court of our land. In his opening remarks at those hearings, our honorable white, male, and good Christian Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama said,

“Even today, President Obama advocates a judicial philosophy that calls on judges to base their decisions on empathy and their “broader vision of what America should be.” He suggests that his nominee shares that view. Our legal system does not allow such an approach.”

At least he tried to wrap his view in the dignity of a legal interpretation, as compared to Michael Steele, the head of the RNC, who said, “Crazy nonsense empathetic. I’ll give you empathy. Empathize right on your behind!”

The question of whether empathy has its place in our justice system is well discussed in a commentary piece by Seymour Toll for The Philadelphia Enquirer, written on the same day as Sessions spoke, “Has Everyone Stopped Caring About Empathy?”

In a fascinating irony, despite the fact that empathy and compassion are getting an X rating these days by some in the justice game, it has now become part of the parlance of war. In an article at www.foxnews.com,  General David Patraeus who just took over the command of the war in Afghanistan is quoted as saying that “ . . .we must continue to demonstrate our resolve to the enemy. We will do so through . . . our compassion for the Afghan people and through our example and the values that we live.”

We must be compassionate in order to win a war, but we must eschew it in the exercise of justice at home. Strange, that. I wonder if there is any relationship to this to be found in the fact that we rush to spend money to kill – the $636 billion dollar Defense Appropriations Bill (!) was passed easily last year in the senate by a vote of 93 – 7 in no time at all, (this year the figure is going up to $680 billion) while we suspect and demonize spending money on life, with the Health Reform Act slowly squeaking through Congress where no Republican voted for the measure in the house, and the senate approving 56 – 43. Guess who voted no? Maybe the same people who don’t like the “E” word.

Is there a place for empathy in justice? As usual, these kinds of questions send us back to Plato, and his teacher, Socrates, who were the first to try to answer these kinds of questions in a consistently logical way. The question starts with, what is justice anyway? And in the end, Socrates’s answer, like always, is, “who knows?” I can’t provide a certain answer, but I’ll go with my teacher, the Chinese philosopher Mencius, who tells us that in the Confucian view, the first quality of the true leader is empathy and compassion. This is the realization of a leader’s human capacity, and through this they will realize their purpose as leaders, which is to make the people happy. Justice, to my mind, is to find the right, and that right is the true and the good, and the true and good leads to happiness. The purpose of justice, then, is to lead to the happiness of the people, which I think Jefferson said something about in the beginning of the Declaration of Independence. And if the essence of empathy is the Golden Rule, or doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, then wanting the good of others is the essence of empathy. That sounds like justice to me. I think it was Jesus who said that he came to fulfill the law, not destroy it, and that fulfillment was love.

But I could be wrong. What do you think? What is justice and should empathy be a part of it?

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Ann Coulter at the Time 100 red carpet.
Image via Wikipedia

Why do people act so stupid? Why do people believe absolute absurdities like the drivel spouted by the likes of Ann Coulter? Why do people believe that Obama is a Nazi? Why do Medicare recipients, who receive medical care through a government program fear health care given through a government program? Are humans that dumb?

Clearly, it is not simply in these areas of politics or public policy that we see humans behaving in ridiculous ways. People act against their self interest all the time. We believe lies and shun the truth. We move towards what is bad for us and avoid the good. We smoke cigarettes, go out with jerks, and invest with Bernie Madoff. As Oscar Wilde said, the only thing we learn from experience is that we never learn from experience. What the hell is wrong with us? Are we selfish, evil morons at root? If we were left unchecked, without the threat of Dick Cheney’s punishment, would we all be ravaging each other? The answer is no.

Neuroscience and evolutionary theory are now proving what the wise among of us have understood since humans started trimming their nose hairs. We are essentially good. Historically, people who have believed this were called humanists. Many people use the word humanist as an insult to instill fear. Watch out, they say, there goes a humanist! Isn’t it odd that people would think so badly of folks who believe that human beings are intrinsically good? There’s that stupidity again. As it turns out, the humanists were right. We have everything we need inside of us to be wise, good, and loving.

The truth is, we are built to love. We come out of the womb this way. We all have brains that are meant to continuously grow and develop in order to optimize our ability to think, feel, act and connect. As Allan N. Schore brilliantly demonstrates in his deeply researched work, “Affect Dysregulation and Disorders of the Self,” what we need early in life to get our brains to develop is someone else’s optimal brain. We become what we are meant to be through relationship. That means we need an optimally loving mom. Moms regulate the growth of their baby’s brains and nervous systems. If mom is in a good mood, she’s pumping luscious levels of happy brain chemicals through her own brain. When baby sees mommy’s happy mood, baby starts squirting happy brain chemicals in its own brain. When the baby’s brain gets showered with this yummy chemical soup, the brain grows. It grows the stuff inside of it that we need to be smart and good. When the baby looks at mom and mom looks at the baby with love, the baby gets high. The baby wants more of the good feeling and so becomes very attached to mom, because mom is the source of those good feelings. The baby’s ability to form this attachment bond with mom becomes the template for the baby to form attachments throughout life. Babies are predisposed to attach; that is, they are predisposed to love. When they get the right kind of love from mom, they become loving.

Now if Mom is not happy, and baby doesn’t get those loving gazes from mommy or anyone else, then the baby’s brain makes nasty neurochemicals. The baby gets stressed. Instead of growing neurons, neurons die. Instead of developing the ability over the course of time to be wise, motivated, courageous, self-confident and compassionate, we become dumb, bored, frightened, self-loathing and self-centered. People who are smart enough to realize that there is no threat of death panels were simply happier babies!

Now why wouldn’t mom give her baby everything that child needed? Why wouldn’t she be happy?  Well, moms and dads who don’t parent in the best way do so because they didn’t get what they needed when they were young and so they didn’t grow the ultimate brain connections when they were growing up. As a result they can’t give their kids what they need. Wounded parents make wounded kids.

We find the same kinds of problems in people who have been traumatized as those who didn’t get the proper nurturing as infants.  Adults who live through wars and other catastrophes can end up screwed up. As Bessel van der Kolk, one of the world’s authorities on trauma, noted in his classic, “Traumatic Stress,” the earlier and more ongoing the trauma, especially if abuse came from a loved one, the worse we get messed up and the less we grow in our natural capacities for learning, growth, emotional development, and love. So science shows us that whether you had a mom who wasn’t there for you in the right ways when you were a baby, or you went through some really bad stuff in your life, you have a much stronger likelihood of being cognitively and emotionally dumb.

Now some of you might say that you had a good childhood, you had a nice mom and you were never traumatized. But you still do really stupid things all the time. How could that be? I see this all the time in my psychotherapy practice. People who seem to have grown up in at least average households end up with a great deal of the same kinds of emotional suffering and problems that I see in those clients who went through obvious trauma or neglect. Some of this is because certain people are genetically predisposed to certain brain problems. But genes are never expressed in a vacuum. As Robert Sopolsky, a noted researcher on stress pointed out, human behavior is always a consequence of the interaction between genes and environment. I got a clue for the explanation for the mysterious reality of dumb behavior when I read about an experiment done in the late 1960’s by a guy named Goddard. He gave rats repeated low level electrical impulses into their brains. No single stimulation was strong enough to promote an obvious effect, but over time these impulses appeared to build on themselves and eventually the rats started having epileptic seizures as if they were receiving massive doses of electrical stimulation. After a while, the rats no longer needed any external stimulation and their seizures continued unabated. The researchers named this the “kindling effect.” By lighting a bunch of little sticks, eventually this would ignite the big log, and lead to a roaring fire. I believe the same thing happens psychologically. When we go through enough repeated, low level emotional wounds, we get what I call critical mass trauma or the rain-barrel effect. This is just like the kindling phenomenon. Enough small wounds build on themselves and eventually result in the same kinds of brain effects and dysfunction that we find with significantly poor attachment experiences in infancy or in trauma. In this way, many people who did not go through what could be considered really bad stuff can still end up with bad symptoms.

So how does this lead to people thinking that Obama is a nazi? When we are hurt in these ways we live in a chronic condition of anxiety or fear. Our ability to take in new information narrows. We tend to see things in the same way we’ve always seen them. We have a hard time trusting. We narrow our vision and only see the things that conform to our expectations. When we encounter something new and hopeful, instead of feeing good, we feel suspicious and frightened. We have a limited capacity for positive emotions and for tolerating and recovering from bad feelings, so we want to keep a tight control on what we feel. We fear that if we allow ourselves to hope too much we won’t be able to handle either the excitement of that feeling or the disappointment if things don’t work out. We don’t see our lives and the world as places where we can make mistakes, and grow and learn from them. If someone in the media frightens us by using bugaboos like humanism, socialism or Nazism, it triggers those parts of the brain that have been hurt, and like a reptile we want to go hide under a rock.

The name that I give to what happens to us when we suffer the consequences of these emotional wounds  is having a lost heart. People who believe bullshit simply have lost hearts. They have been hurt in their lives, and so do not have the ability to distinguish truth from lies. In fact, they prefer bullshit, especially if it promises relief from their suffering without effort. One reason Ann Coulter works is because she makes it simple. It’s all the other asshole’s fault!

Does this mean that we are hopeless? Are we are all destined to live lives far beneath our potential because of the millions of tiny wounds we all suffer in this wounded world? Is there no possibility of reaching the dumb, hateful and selfish? No. Just as the brain formed in the first place through relationship, it is always in a process of self-creation. The brain is plastic, that is, it continues to grow, through relationship throughout our whole lives. We have the ability to work on ourselves, and give ourselves what we need so that we can free the brain’s natural ability to develop toward its highest functioning. The great Chinese Sage, Mencius, called this self-cultivation. He said, “The principle of self-cultivation consists in nothing but trying to find the lost heart.” What this means is that if we work on ourselves, and give ourselves what we need, we can realize the potentials that nature has given to us.

In order for us to have the happiest lives, to raise good and happy children, and to fix a broken world, we all need to recognize the ways that we have lost contact with our essence and commit ourselves to doing everything we can to finding our hearts again. Maybe if enough of us do this, we won’t be so damn dumb. If we uncover the natural potential for smarts in enough people, maybe the lost-hearted media will stop giving so much space to idiots like Coulter, Limbaugh and Palin, and instead give space to those people who are the only ones considered worse than the socialists: the humanists. Now that would be wise.

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