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Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Limits of Sympathy

I recently fielded a question from a priest that almost made me laugh out loud: "Do you think I am a sociopath?"

The conversation ended rather quickly after I told him that I thought he was 'spoiled,' which tends to lead down that path.  A bit offended, he countered with a second question, "What about you?"

To clarify, we were both using the wrong term.  I think the word we were looking for, as non-professionals in the field of psychology, is 'psychopath.'  We were using this to describe our occasional lack of sympathy or empathy for others in distress.  This may seem troubling to the reader who expects clergy to have boundless compassion and empathy, along with a constant expression of sympathy so as to never require the sufferer to get better.

According to Wikipedia, these are the main features of a psychopath:

Facet 1: Interpersonal
  • Glibness/superficial charm
  • Grandiose sense of self-worth
  • Pathological lying
  • Cunning/manipulative
Facet 2: Affective
  • Lack of remorse or guilt
  • Emotionally shallow
  • Callous/lack of empathy
  • Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
Facet 3: Lifestyle
  • Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom
  • Parasitic lifestyle
  • Lack of realistic, long-term goals
  • Impulsiveness
  • Irresponsibility
Facet 4: Antisocial
  • Poor behavioral controls
  • Early behavioral problems
  • Juvenile delinquency
  • Revocation of conditional release
  • Criminal versatility
Other Items
  • Many short-term marital relationships
  • Promiscuous sexual behavior

To be honest, my friend has a long way to go before anyone would call him a psychopath.  Sure, he has a few of these characteristics, but I can see myself in many of these features as well.  The difference is that the true psychopath isn't bothers by these things, whereas my friend and I are.

As priests who deal with the suffering of others, we do have to cultivate an emotional barrier to not utterly empathize with the suffering people we deal with.  The reason is that empathy is a form of 'co-suffering.'  We experience our own hurt as we deal with the hurt of others.  To do this on occasion is healthy.  To do it every day can wear you down.

God can bear our pain, but we can barely handle our own.  Taking up another's suffering is a difficult and draining experience.  Just so we can get through the day, we often have to become purposefully shallow and glib.  It is a survival mechanism.

The danger for us who deal with so much suffering is that the defense mechanism, meant to be used on occasion to protect ourselves from being overwhelmed, becomes the 'default position.'  Many people have wondered why the idealistic and devoted seminarian of yesterday becomes the dodgy, shallow, materialistic pastor of today.  Sometimes, the pious act in school was just that... an act.  But, too often, the opposite is true: the pious man was really compassionate and caring, but he burned out along the way as the burdens of others broke him.

It is not so much a matter of "I-don't-care" but one of "I-can't-care."  This is particularly true when a vast majority of the suffering we are asked to cure requires changes that the sufferers reject and refuse.  This means they demand constant treatment for their pain, but no cure for its cause.  They are guaranteed to come back with new wounds needing 'emotional morphine.'

We think we are 'bad' when we finally say, "No, you can't have anymore."  People are shocked when a priest makes light of another person's torment and refuses to indulge in the social conventions of sympathetic emotions in the presence of suffering.  This demand that we must always respond with an affect of pity and sympathy any time a person expresses distress helps neither the sufferer nor us, yet we demand it.  We must never look 'cold.'

But, nobody is being healed with sympathy.  In fact, their victimhood is being reinforced.  I would go as far as to say that this unrestrained sympathy is ruining our culture and society as a whole.


Under present social conventions, anyone who expresses distress gets to demand whatever they want from the non-sufferer.  So, we make laws that restrict any form of behavior that makes another person 'uncomfortable,' and we make sure not to say anything about Islam so that Moslems in far away countries don't have riots.  

Soon, what we have is everyone demanding their share of victimhood, but no real solutions.  We give up being tolerant of others because we are so tired of having to accommodate  the constant demands placed on us by those who have so many grievances.  So, you go from wild extremes of politically-correct over-restriction in the workplace to wild debauchery in public entertainment.  Just look at the extremes of the modern bureaucracy and the demands of sexual harassment training, then go to a night club or concert or some other public event that employs women in bikinis.

Addicts use their addictions to create their own psychopathic environment to deal with their pain and the pain of others.  The glibness and callousness of the addict is a construct.  We drink and use so that we go not feel our own pain or empathy for others.

That is the hardest part of recovery: learning to feel.  We also have to learn to properly 'not feel' and not allow ourselves to collapse under the weight of other people's pain.

We must learn our limits, otherwise we will be crushed.

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