“Awareness” and “empathy” have become this decade’s Catch-22 words, full of traps and mind games, yet serving a purpose if only a future moment when we say, “Remember our obsession with that.” Of course, we think we want to become more aware, but do we? Likewise, we think we wish to become more empathetic, but do we actually seek more empathy towards ourselves? How often do we extend awareness and empathy only to find that none will be returned?

Experiment: Take a look at the photos above. If you already know the identity of those depicted, skip ahead. If not, answer the following question sets, then proceed.

Question Set 1: What does Photo #1 suggest to you? What do you feel when looking at it? How would you describe the person portrayed? Would you extend empathy towards the person portrayed?

Question Set 2: What does Photo #2 suggest to you? What do you feel when looking at it? How would you describe the person portrayed? Would you extend empathy towards the person portrayed?

So who are they? Photo #1 depicts Adolf Hitler as a baby. Photo #2 depicts Pope Benedict XVI during his membership in the Hitler Youth. Adolf Hitler never made excuses for himself; Pope Benedict has made plenty. In any event, there you have it. For those unable to identify the subjects in the photos, do you feel more aware? Does that awareness make you more or less empathetic and in which case(s)?

The point here is not to attack awareness and empathy but to explore their limits. For instance, can empathy, especially when offered but not returned, become a subtle form of surrender? At what point does empathy become a form of accepting the unacceptable?

The psychologist Albert Ellis, founder of REBT, explained the extent to which he embraced his concept of “universal other-acceptance,” that being wholly rejecting the view that anyone is or ever has been 100 percent evil. How far did he take this view of acceptance? Ellis proposed that even Hitler was not 100 percent evil. Difficult to accept? Take another look at baby Hitler. For some unknown period of time, Hitler was innocent.  Since it must now always be added that Stalin proves to have been “no better,” consider that Stalin was an obvious paranoid. In the American judicial system, excepting Texas, Stalin might have received a reprieve from the death penalty based upon insanity.

On the other hand, empathy depends upon the person extending it. Any victim of Hitler or Stalin able to profess empathy towards one or the other might be considered (a) pathologically forgivers or (b) saints. During the war, those fighting “Hitler” might have found their determination weakened by allowing themselves to feel any empathy towards him. Ellis claims, “As a result of my philosophy, I wasn’t even upset about Hitler. I was willing to go to war to knock him off, but I didn’t hate him.” How did all this work out for Ellis in real life? There shall be no easy answers. Ellis did not fight in World War II. Ellis was a Jew.

And so we become more aware. Does increased awareness intensify empathy? Or does it decrease empathy? Of course, that depends upon the perspectives of those potentially offering empathy. Are we aiming for empathy by seeing through the eyes of the innocent Hitler or Stalin? Or do we aim for empathy through the eyes of the absolutely amoral Hitler or Stalin? Or do we somehow try to keep both perspectives in mind, creating a semi-mathematical mean of perspectives?

Whom do we forgive and why? Whom do we forgive last in almost all cases? Ourselves. Everyone has fascist moments; if not, fascism would never have become possible. In such moments, we perpetuate our worst acts and usually without much conscience involved. Obviously, we absorb our degree of conscience through parents or guardians but also later by the media, which perpetuates an ethical system lacking any ethics at all…for the media. We, however, are constantly reminded of our responsibilities while simultaneously being told the self comes first and above all else. What a strange society, with vertical and horizontal fields of ethics and power that cannot be mapped or otherwise depicted. We the Narcissistic Puritans endlessly chastise ourselves and everyone else, except, of course, when we’re not providing fodder to others chastising us. Empathy becomes a wicked thicket.

None of these points can be squared to easy solutions, but this much can be stated with uncertain certainty: Empathy is conditioned and conditional until awareness exposes the extent to which we’re willing to extend our empathy beyond its previous limits. What we do with this awareness, and how we spend our empathy, cannot be proven as beneficial in every case. Putting aside historical figures and considering only those we encounter in daily life, how much empathy can we afford to spend on those so self-convinced that they don’t even convince themselves and so never stop trying to do so? Only when forced to repetitively encounter such people (such as the workplace) do we benefit from extending empathy towards them. We can remain neutral in judgment; to go beyond that point is to deplete the natural resource of empathy.

Awareness may lead to increased empathy, but empathy, when it proves a fool’s errand, does so only after the fact and too late for retraction. We may aim for universal other-awareness, as Ellis proposes, but everyday life opposes the infinite, constantly pushing us back towards our finite lives that can never become wholly rational. We cannot escape this dilemma, but we can mitigate its tensions. Learn and learn again, all lessons to be repeated.

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PAUL A. TOTH's Airplane Novel, already a Midwest Book Review Reviewer's Choice and the 9/11 novel, is available now. His other novels include Finale, Fishnet and Fizz. Click here to visit his sites.

11 responses to “Becoming Empathetic: How Low Can You Go?”

  1. Irene Zion says:


    I think forgiveness is given not for the sake of the evil person, but so you can move past the hate that is holding you down.

    • Paul A. Toth says:

      I don’t disagree, Irene. You could say I was exploring our limits. To play devil’s advocate, however, isn’t that type of forgiveness less forgiveness than “hatelessness”? Those don’t seem to be the same reactions. As my own devil’s advocate, it’s often the best I can do!

  2. sheree says:

    Do you think people who were starved of empathy at an early age are more likely to give it more freely on a deeper level in an open manner?

    As a person who has survived many difficult and dark interactions with others at an early age, I find it harder to give empathy or sympathy to those around me. Not because I don’t have the ability, but because I struggled so hard to overcome my own crap without the assistance of others.

    I find myself retracting sympathy and empathy before it’s even extended towards people experiencing difficulties, when they’re over the age of 18 and have the ability to change the situation that they are in, but don’t out of what appears to be fear of not succeeding or making the right choice or feeling that they have to sacrifice too much to gain independence from their situation.

    It’s super easy for me to extend without retracting sympathy and empathy towards people who have been victims of circumstances beyond their control and are making a strong effort to move beyond what has happened to put them in the situation of where they are, or were.

    I have little sympathy or empathy for those who continually put themselves in a situation to be victimized.

    This really bothers me. I often wonder if I am normal, or if I were broken beyond repair in this area in my youth due to the life experiences that I had at an early age and my drive to overcome these obstacles somehow warped my ability to extend sympathy and empathy before I retract it without having fully extended it first.

    Holy crap this post opened a big ass can of worms I don’t think I was prepared for.
    I’ve been so busy not going back to where I managed to free myself from, that I have never really questioned why I reserve my empathy and sympathy towards others.

    Crap I’ve got a LOT of thinking to do.

    Thanks for the post.
    Great writing.

    Clicking post comment before I chicken out. Heh.

  3. Paul A. Toth says:

    Dear Sheree:

    Thank you for the thoughtful post. I now realize something I had never considered before: Reasons for those refusing to extend or return empathy go well beyond they’re “being assholes.”

    Next, those extended little empathy as children are essentially trained to continue the pattern. This is where genetics has been overemphasized. Many traits can be tracked back through a few branches of a family tree. For instance, I was raised in an anxious and worrying environment, as were my parents, and now I’m anxious and worrisome. Genetic? Perhaps that’s involved, but it’s seems much more likely that these are simply traits inherited not through DNA but direct contact, like viruses.

    Most of us are beyond a cure, but we can substantially mitigate problems. After all, these aren’t physical impairments that a surgeon can correct. However, no one is beyond repair.

    As a start, I would suggest exploring this statement you made: “I have little sympathy or empathy for those who continually put themselves in a situation to be victimized.”

    As an experiment, try o go beyond that idea. Take drug users as an example. The first step is realizing that everyone has what they think is a rational reason for their behavior. The drug user is seeking to relieve emotional and physical pain. The first answer that comes to his mind is acquiring more drugs. We may see this thinking as irrational and say the drug user is victimizing himself. The drug user, if capable, would respond, “Step into my skin and you’ll discover irrationality can easily replace rationality. I’m no victim; I just want to feel normal again.”

    In short, force yourself to hunt for motivations beyond the first ones come to mind, statements like, “They get what they ask for,” etc. See if you can reach down for reasons such “victims” might have for their behavior but which differ from approach. Usually, those reasons don’t lie too deep. A person with whom you disagree has a different set of standards. You need not go past thinking, “There goes another fucked up human being, just like myself.” That’s empathy! And remember, a drug user could say, “You’re victimizing yourself by claiming you’re incapable of extending empathy. Poor you with your childhood.”

    Finally, too much empathy openly displayed can lead to being perceived as weak. This may play a big part in your fear. Empathy need not be spoken. It can be expressed through body language, attitude, etc. In fact, that is the tact I’m taking. I test the waters. If I feel a conversation may lead to a friendship, I extend a bit of spoken empathy and continue. I stop the moment I am attacked, or treated as if a weakling or a sounding board. My empathy returns to silence. Empathy may not only be expressed silently, but anyone can take empathy and walk away when that empathy is rejected or verges on being abused. At that point, you think, “To hell with it. Your motivations threaten me, and whatever empathy I had for you is surpassed by self-preservation.”

    The above pointers are intended as minimal-risk approaches to your questions. They do not imply I practice what I preach!

    Hope that helps.



  4. dwoz says:

    I think this piece presented a false choice. Baby Hitler is a strawman.

    I think you’re wrong that empathy is something that can be squandered.

    Empathy is an expression of unconditional love. Expressing it in a circumstance where you subsequently reap ill-effects doesn’t mean that you’ve mis-spent it. Empathy CAN go hand-in-hand with active efforts to mitigate further exposure, they’re not mutually exclusive.

  5. sheree says:

    “Next, those extended little empathy as children are essentially trained to continue the pattern”.

    I’ve seen first hand children who were sorely deprived of both empathy and sympathy who did not carry this learned behavior into adulthood.
    That’s part of what causes me to question myself.

    As far as addiction goes. I see it as an illness more than a flaw and it garners empathy and sympathy from me. I am just more reserved when extending it, as I do not wish to be an enabler of their addictions.

    I will be thinking about your post and comment to me for a very long time.

    Thank you for taking the time to respond to my long comment.
    It will be helpful on my journey into more of the who, what, where, when and why of myself.

  6. Paul A. Toth says:

    Dear Dwaz:

    You’re reading into the piece. It mainly poses questions, and its conclusion poses the exact point you made in your comment: “We cannot escape this dilemma, but we can mitigate its tensions. Learn and learn again, all lessons to be repeated.”

    I used Hitler and the Pope to challenge the limits of empathy and how we do or do not overcome our resistance to it depending upon variables, some know, some unknown.



  7. Paul A. Toth says:

    Dear Sheree:

    You wrote: “I’ve seen first hand children who were sorely deprived of both empathy and sympathy who did not carry this learned behavior into adulthood.”

    But that’s true of children of any kind of parents. Children of alcoholics may or may not become alcoholics. A gene that predisposes a person to alcoholism has been located. However, tests for this gene run on identical twins reveal that some do and some don’t become “problem drinkers,” even if their environments were similar.

    So, your childhood probably played a part in it. But that doesn’t solve the problem; it does help to identify the roots. There’s nothing wrong with you; you just adapted one way, and other people adapt another way. I sense that blaming yourself is precisely what makes empathy so difficult for you: You don’t have any for yourself. So that’s where you should start.



  8. JoAnn Turner says:

    Hi Paul,

    Interesting article. I read it yesterday and thought about it a lot. I haven`t followed up on some of the sources you mention so I`m just commenting on what I see here.

    I think a lot about empathy and compassion, and I think we need to make a distinction between the two. If our popular culture fails to do that when we see words like “empathy,” then that`s a problem in popular culture, in my view.

    In my understanding, empathy is a term that has mainly resided within the realm of psychology and psychotherapy, and only recently has been demonstrated as a genuine neurological and physiological response. Seeing someone else get hurt will cause a measurable response in my brain. Seeing someone else get embarrassed will cause a different measurable response in my brain. And that`s as far as empathy goes. It`s the perceptive response.

    What I do with it as a person, how I apply it to other people, is something else, and that lies more in the realm of awareness, compassion, charitable thoughts and so on. Some people are more empathic than others, but that says little or nothing about their ability to be compassion, let alone forgive. One of my personal beefs with my own empathy is that I am a “sympathy crier.” If someone cries or gets teary-eyed in front of me, I will cry in response. It makes no difference who they are, how I feel about them, or how I feel about what they`re crying about. I find this very annoying!

    On the other hand, I`m one of those rare people who do not gag or even feel sick when somebody barfs in front of me. Go figure.

    In my personal lexicon, empathy is the sensory response to the emotions of others, where compassion is a higher-level function that involves emotion, reason and ethics or morality. I seem to recall the Dalai Lama defines compassion as wanting others not to suffer, whereas love is wanting the best for another. So love, in this sense, is yet another step up the ladder. And forgiveness, well, I think that`s at least a step or two beyond compassion. Compassion is probably a necessary precursor to forgiveness. If I can`t imagine how the other guy felt or feels, I probably won`t be able to find it in my heart to forgive him or her. Forgiveness, though, is not just about feelings, it`s about actions that had effects in the world. Those effects might be emotional. Maybe my emotional response is not valid. Or maybe it is. And my emotional response, in turn, may have no bearing on my ability to empathize with the person, let alone my ability to forgive.

    I have no problem with looking at the photo of baby Hitler and seeing him as a cute baby, and at the same time remembering what happened to him later. In fact, I see this as a pretty good object lesson in the folly of demonizing people. If people WERE simply good or evil, living in a world full of humans would be easy! Cute babies can grow up to be complex people with dark motivations who behave in anti-social, destructive ways. Recognizing our common humanity makes the task of moral decision-making more complex, but not impossible.

    I think your point about the limits of empathy is well worth considering. At the same time, I think all of this is more complex than words like “empathy” and “awareness” can convey, if they`re loosely defined and bandied about in popular media. My sense is that we need a more complex vocabulary to think about, and talk about, these issues. Your article makes a good start.

    Thanks for this. It made me think about this in a different way and re-examine my own understanding of certain terms.

    All the best,

  9. health says:


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