A scene can play out before your eyes in very different ways.
You wait impatiently in your car for an old woman to cross the street as she slowly pulls a grocery cart, cursing under your breath at the fact that she seems to be in no hurry to get out of your way and probably doesn’t even notice you or your car.
Another time, that same old woman, pulling that same grocery cart across that same street, brings tears to your eyes as you imagine her living alone, unable to afford a car, no one there to help her, just barely making ends meet…her lifetime of labor earning her only the right to struggle in loneliness.
In the first instance, you are self-absorbed and as cold as polished steel. In the second, you feel empathy for someone in a situation about which you know nothing; your imagination carries you toward caring.
It’s easier, I think, to be the impatient one, cursing under your breath. The empathic vision requires more emotional energy. But feeling empathy is in accord with the advice of Plato, who advises “Be kind. Everyone you meet is in the midst of a great struggle.”
I struggle with knowing whether the two behaviors toward the old woman are innate or learned. I suspect there’s a bit of natural response there somewhere, but society teaches us which behaviors are acceptable. When society teaches us a behavior or a response to an external stimulus is not acceptable (like the impatience described above), we still engage in it. So, that argues that the response is natural, but is controlled by our socialization.
But, wait, does society teach us the response is not acceptable? Or does society teach us that the more empathic response is the preferred response? Or, in fact, does society teach us both, leaving it to the individual’s own mind to select what’s best for the moment?
These are the sorts of questions that cause me to fondly recall my college days in sociology and psychology classes. I remember being startled at how much I wanted to discuss questions whose answers were not black and white. Conversations and arguments were thrilling; the thirst for knowledge was exciting!
Forty years later, the questions remain.