Empathy: Bringing down the walls one brick at a time
By M. Jefferson Hale*
What would happen if the entire world followed the greatest moral advice of the sages? What would such a world look like? “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is not a concept owned by any religion. One finds it even in the words of secular humanists. It is almost universal:
It is Baha’i: “Ascribe not to any soul that which thou wouldst not have ascribed to thee, and say not that which thou doest not. . . .Blessed is he who preferreth his brother before himself.” Baha’u'llah;
It is Buddhism: “…a state that is not pleasing or delightful to me, how could I inflict that upon another?” Samyutta Nikaya v. 353;
It is Christianity: “And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.” Luke 6:31, King James Version;
It is Secular Humanism: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you;
It is Brahmanism: “This is the sum of Dharma (duty): Do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you.” Mahabharata, 5:1517;
It is Islam: “None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” Number 13 of Imam Al-Nawawi’s Forty Hadiths;
It is Judaism: ”What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man. This is the law: all the rest is commentary.” Talmud, Shabbat 31a;
It is Confucianism: “When one cultivates to the utmost the principles of his nature, and exercises them on the principle of reciprocity, he is not far from the path. What you do not like when done to yourself, do not do to others.” Confucius, Doctrine of the Mean.
Indeed, reciprocity** is a moral concept advocated by these and many more religions, as well as atheists and agnostics the world over. It is possibly the highest moral value ever espoused, and yet most who claim to adhere to this philosophy often ignore it, especially in politics. If this were not so, then there would exist little or no poverty, little or no indifference, and there would be universal, nonprofit healthcare. Why would this not be something to which everyone could agree?
I confess to my own guilt here. I, like everyone, am a product of my environment and my genetic heritage. I am a work in progress. I have profound regrets for inappropriate statements and actions that brought stress to others, and still often have difficulty in controlling my desire for fractious confrontation against those with whom I have grievances in both social situations and politics. Civil debate is always better even if civility isn’t a trait of one’s opponent, and I am a firm believer in debate. Thus, I have to keep reminding myself that anger wins no converts, always troubles the soul, and makes the way difficult. Since I cannot change the past or my genetics, therefore, the best I can do is try my best to recognize my inclinations to self-centeredness, condescension, aggression, and resist.
On this site, I will call on readers to join me in traveling the difficult path of the sages. We are all subject to the same natural impulses and will often fall short, but if everyone were to try, it would be a far better world.
How hard can it be? Consider Matthew 25:32-46. Matthew, or whoever wrote Matthew, in his quest to bring about a more just society, did not suffer from any illusion that empathy is our primary motivating force. Self-interest is far stronger. He knew that without threat of punishment, relatively few would follow his words. Moreover, he knew that mere punishment, such as execution, prison, or flogging would not be enough. He knew the punishment must be far greater than anything dealt by society. It had to be the threat of divine punishment: unrelenting torture, without end, forever.
Yet, even that threat has never been enough. Why has it not? Because we human beings are only slightly less subject to our genetic heritage than other species. By nature, we are aggressive, self-interested, territorial beings. These traits are characteristics honed long ago by the drive for survival—a drive we’ve inherited from a distant past far more dangerous than the present when to lose one’s territory and possessions was to lose one’s life, or at the very least, create hardships.
Still, human territorialism is no longer the instinct it was long ago. An instinct is a drive that impels an individual, without recourse, to certain actions, not the least of which is to protect himself, his family, and his territory in an aggressive manner and to procreate.
We now have the power to override those passions, reducing what used to be instinct to mere impulses. We have become, collectively, more tolerant and less territorial. Even though we, for the most part, have intellectualized our territorialism in the form of property possession and sovereignty by force of law, our ethical concepts are evolving. We, therefore, now have the capacity to follow the path of the sages, difficult as that may be.
I can envision a future—not in my lifetime but long thereafter—humankind will live together as brothers and sisters. I can see a time when our primary motivation will not be self-interest, but universal empathy. The founders of that future are those who listen to the sages and have the courage to venture beyond the walls of their theological and self-centered ideologies, taking with them only the greatest words of wisdom; the words of benevolent reciprocity. Imagine what the world would be like if everyone did this.
* M. Jefferson Hale is the lead character in the novel, "The Empathy Imperative," by Max T. Furr (maxfur.com)
** What was implied by the sages was benevolent reciprocity. Simple reciprocity might allow for returning violence for violence, but benevolent reciprocity is returning kindness for violence. It is, indeed, a most difficult thing to do.