The paradox of empathy

February 04, 2023

Understanding the needs of another person is immensely helpful in tuning our behavior to them, and in predicting or even influencing their behavior around us. Practicing being attentive to the small cues they provide, through their choice of words and other expressions, can help us relate to their experience. To seem to catch a glimpse of their inner world.

But here is where the paradox begins. We cannot actually see, hear, or smell their thoughts. Even if they might use the same words we do and behave in ways we recognize. When we’re attentive enough, we might map these to our own past experiences to imagine what our inner world might be like in their circumstances. Unfortunately, these are merely our own stories. Limited by our imagination and colored by our own past. We project our trauma, our subconscious motivations, and also our current state. While our own back hurts we’re more likely to notice them grimace.

Empathy is ultimately a mirror. One reflecting facet of a dazzlingly complex mind. A mind perilously oriented inward. Our minds are divided into characters of our lives in a continuous unfolding play of our own direction. Everyone we’ve ever met is in fact a shaving off of our own ego. The social dance we experience is me meeting myself for a millionth time.

Is this why we feel so lonely. Is this why I am so lonely? Our companions are imaginary. Their inner worlds are in fact our own. As for an outer world–now this may be the antidote to our, my, loneliness. In attending patiently to our inner world, and accommodating everything from the softest whispers to the loudest intrusions from the outside, we might eventually meet reality. To finally and truly encounter one or two other people out there. But only the ones waiting with outstretched arms.

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Written by Abhi Hiremagalur in San Francisco.Why not sign up for letters from me or simply say hello.

© 2023, Abhi Hiremagalur