One of the great walls of isolation I’ve found myself up against is not a lack of empathy, but empathy of the wrong kind. Empathy for the murderer. Empathy for the suicidal. Empathy for the psychotic and psychopathic. It seems contradictory that the ability to empathize would be an isolating variable. Being able to understand what others feel and think should be a source of bonding and connection. But what about when that understanding is with the man on death row? Who then do you bond with?
Empathy for the devil pushes away all God-fearing people. The phrase, “I just can’t understand why [so and so] would do that” is a phrase I try to never allow to cross my mind. And yet it is one of the first things that pops into the average Joe’s head when he hears about the latest school shooting. “Why would he do that?” The question is rhetorical. He doesn’t want to know or understand why. “My sympathies for all those who lost a child.” But Joe also doesn’t want to understand what the parents feel either. He will sympathize, but not empathize. He can lift a perceived burden from his own shoulders by sending condolences and carry on with his life. To quote Robert Frost: “And they, since they were not the ones dead, turned to their affairs.”
The phrase I always try to remember when I hear of a terrible occurrence is: “Nothing human is alien to me.” This is a very unpopular sentiment. The best example is the Nazis, who have been summed up as mad, labeled as evil, and demonized in near totality. Average Joe doesn’t want to look at the Average Hans and know why Hans let his Jewish neighbors be killed. Then Joe would have to look into himself and practice that horrible, frightful word: introspection. Because to understand how another can do harm or stand by idly, one must be able to understand why they might do the same. Notice that I said might, not would. Just because I can empathize with a man who killed his family doesn’t mean I’m going to do the same. It simply means I can understand how that man got to that point, and how, with a different set of circumstances or a slight change in character, I could be that man.
That ability, the ability to empathize with the devil, renders me practically on the same level as the devil. Watching other people blindly lord their own impeccable morality over the damned is frustrating, yet how can I stand up for the psychopath or the drug-addled? I must sit in silence, isolated by understanding. And I can’t make people understand. Their defenses would never be let down so easily, their walls are as impenetrable as my own. Are you one of these people? Take a good hard look in the mirror, and then a long sensitive look around. The devil begs no sympathy, but even he must desire a little empathy.