Empathy is the first casualty of stress

Flipping through some channels yesterday I heard an observation from a scientist Sanjay Gupta was interviewing about the crisis facing humanity these days. Constant stress, the guy pointed out, robs us of our ability to empathize.

One of the first casualties of being constantly stressed out is the loss of humane feeling for the suffering of our fellow human beings. It makes intuitive sense, if your ass is literally on fire your brother’s heartburn, no matter how severe, will not register. Perspective 101.

I thought back to my old friends’ marriage from hell. They are in a constant war, locked in a mutual inchoate rage almost impossible to comprehend. Each one is a basically kind person, has a good sense of humor, is very smart, and so on. Together they are highly toxic, as they have long been to each other.

In recent years my friend could not seem to resist provoking me every time we met. When he provoked me, and my temper began to rise, I told him his line of conversation was irritating me, asked him to back off, talk about something else. His response was always to double down, tell me it was my problem, that I have a problem with anger. I do. Anger is a problem. I don’t seek it, want it or need it. But there it is, waiting, in any situation where we are treated badly, unfairly.

Why couldn’t he stop provoking me? On one level he probably wants someone to kick his ass, make the screaming in his head stop, if only for a minute. That’s my best guess. This seems to be the case in the endless neurotic cycle of violent fights with his wife.

What I realize now is that the stress he is constantly flailing against in his painful marriage is a huge factor in his inability to stop when he is provoking his oldest friend. Compared to the hell he lives in every moment of every day, what problem could a lucky fellow like me possibly have? How dare I pretend that he’s provoking me?!!

All I’ve got is “addition by subtraction.” You need to stay away from people who are incapable of empathy, you really do.

Our current president’s lack of empathy is perhaps the most destructive thing about him. Everything is a transaction he is attempting to win, so that he feels like a “winner”. He has no friends, only people who are useful to him, until they are not. He constantly provokes and attacks, ratcheting up the anger and stress, disabling anyone from discussing anything empathetically, intelligently, with nuance.

If I could speak to his followers I’d tell them that I completely understand how screwed they feel, how desperate they are for fundamental change, more fairness, being able to meaningfully participate in our democracy, how right they are to feel this way. Fellow citizens, we have been fucked for a long time here in the land of the free and the home of the brave. We’ve been fed many kinds of poison, very lucrative for the sellers, very bad for us.

If I could convince them that we are in the same leaky boat, I’d ask them, quietly, how many of the alternative fact president’s promises for their lives has he actually kept.

They may point to an army of lifetime federal judges who will ban abortion and favor corporations over humans. They may mention the huge huge tax breaks he gave to the wealthiest Americans, or his no-nonsense get tough policy on children fleeing horrible conditions south of our border. He took us out of the Paris Climate Accord, the Iran Deal, increased the military budget, just as he promised he would. There are many campaign promises he made that he has kept, like nullifying virtually everything his Kenyan Muslim predecessor did by Executive Order.

One important question: how do any of these things actually benefit you or the people you love?

Do you have health care that is cheaper and better than Obamacare? He promised us that. Do you have a great job in a coal mine? Do you feel optimistic that the people of the earth, working together, can solve the most pressing problems we face or are you still constantly angry at how cruelly you’ve been fucked?

If it’s anger, and you’re looking for someone to blame, I’m your man, the eternal Jew, friend of the enslaved, who created this mess. It’s good to have someone to blame for your rage. A glance at any history book will illuminate the fine uses of this principle for you.

Addition by subtraction, it’s really the best I’ve come up with for mercilessly self-absorbed people in my life. Better to have a couple of comfortable friends you don’t have to keep your guard up with than many friends you have to dance a careful dance with to avoid serious problems. My take, anyway.

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