When AP first contacted me about writing a weekly blog, we were on tour with Underoath and I started writing a piece about religion and politics in music. But I still hadn't gotten close to finishing all the interviews when my deadline was coming up. So I put that on hold and started to write a blog on the feelings that bands get when they're about to release a new record. The topic is particularly interesting to me at the moment because my band, Thursday, are about to release our sixth full-length, No Devolucion. But I have to be honest, it's been hard for me to think about much else than the situation in Japan. I find myself checking news aggregator sites every half hour to see if there is any update. I look for headlines on every newspaper rack I pass. I even check the horoscopes to see if there are any hints of things improving. But before you think I'm about to get high and mighty, I'd like to tell you that this blog is about the idea of empathy—and whether or not it's a form of mental illness.
At it's most basic, Merriem-Webster defines empathy as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this”
So we see the tragedy unfolding in Japan and we think, “I know what it's like to be scared and cold… I know what it's like to lose possessions, a friend, a family member… I know what it's like to experience sudden terror in a crowd… I have worries about the future…” and we place all those things together and “feel” what so many people are living through in Japan right now. There are exceptions to this: Psychopathic personality types often lack empathy completely, which is why they do not empathize with their victims enough to stop from harming them. Often, Autistic children lack the signifiers of empathy. Although there is debate as to whether they lack the ability to perceive the emotions of others or, conversely, they may be too sensitive to others emotions and it causes aversion to feelings (in other words, they avoid seeing the pain of others because it causes them too much pain themselves). I'm not a psychologist, so I don't really come down on either side of the argument. I do, however, see a lot of aversion going on around me.
Charlie Sheen became an overnight meme on the internet and a catch-all social reference in conversation while the earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear disasters were happening in Japan. Have you ever noticed there's always something very small and distracting that becomes very popular during disasters in remote places? Whenever I wake up to a Twitter feed that's full of references to Justin Bieber's new haircut or a pop singer's nude pics, I wonder what war started while I was sleeping.
Also, comment below if you've ever had a boyfriend or girlfriend who could not stand to watch the news because it was too depressing. (Statistically speaking, there will be more comments about a girlfriend who couldn't watch the news since women have been scientifically proven to have a greater capacity for empathy.) On the other hand, I force myself to watch the horrors of the world and feel completely paralyzed with the sadness that I feel. I feel like making records is such a vain luxury in the context of the greater human suffering in the world—especially when we're scheduled to play Japan in May and it hasn't been cancelled yet. I imagine myself standing on a stage and trying to communicate love and hope and loss and beauty to a bunch of people that have been through more than I can imagine. To me, it seems borderline offensive. By the same token, even trying to talk about or sell our new record right now seems heartless.
On the other hand, when I think about trying to raise money for the victims of the tsunami, I feel like I'm trying to become the face of altruism or something. Do you ever feel that way? Crushed, helpless and impotent in the face of an event? Here is where I think empathy actually starts to become problematic: When your connection to other people goes beyond compassion and into a kind of nervous collapse. When I was younger—say high school-age—I had this happen to me constantly. Any horrible thing that happened anywhere in the world would make me feel like I shouldn't be allowed to have happiness on that day.
More than anything, I fear that most people in the world are losing the empathic trait and becoming more cutthroat, more self-interrested and more focused on the bottom line—socially acceptable psychopaths set loose to run the world. In fact, a new University of Michigan study shows that children today show 40 percent less empathy than those of the 1980s. This is a shocking figure, considering that empathy is learned at a very early age. It's basically an extension of “monkey-see, monkey do”: we see our parents' emotions and mirror them back as a way to learn how to experience and express emotion. So to be lacking in such a basic trait seems hard to believe. But as I was feeling more and more discouraged by the state of the world, the tragedy in Japan, everyone's utter lack of empathy and my own absurdly self-destructive empathy orgy, I came across this in The Wall Street Journal about compassion training in Buddhist Monks:
“Using the brain scan called functional magnetic resonance imaging, the scientists pinpointed regions that were active during compassion meditation. In almost every case, the enhanced activity was greater in the monks' brains than the novices'. Activity in the left prefrontal cortex (the seat of positive emotions such as happiness) swamped activity in the right prefrontal (site of negative emotions and anxiety), something never before seen from purely mental activity. A sprawling circuit that switches on at the sight of suffering also showed greater activity in the monks. So did regions responsible for planned movement, as if the monks' brains were itching to go to the aid of those in distress.”
This would seem to me that we can not only train compassion, but train willingness to act! That's exactly what I need! Where can I get some of that? In the midst of all the budget cutting going on in Washington right now, I hope we can get some federal funding to help us all become more compassionate and motivated people. I for one would be happy to pay an extra $50 in taxes to be surrounded by a more caring and pro-active population. Would you? Do you feel this could be helpful? (Okay, maybe jumping straight to federally funded programs is a bit premature.) Would you like to see a more compassionate, motivated society? The comments section is open for your thoughts. Thanks for reading this mess of a blog post. Next time, back to business as usual. I promise.
Feel like doing something to help?