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Carl Benedict offers online counseling on his web site Serenity Online Therapy.
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The Wisdom and Importance of Empathy

I love this quote, purportedly from Peter Hedges, the novelist and screenwriter for What's Eating Gilbert Grape and Pieces of April. However, I have not yet been able to verify that he is the source. But the quote speaks for itself.

I would hope that people might view their fellow human beings, all beings, with more empathy, more compassion, with a desire to understand. Even if they can't know why the people are the way they are, to understand that they're probably that way for a good reason...And I suppose that what I am trying to say is that no life is small and no story is without its value.

Empathy is the key to a better life and world. Photo of a shanty by Carl Benedict.

Researchers trying to understand how the Nazis could exterminate millions of Jews while ordinary citizens allowed it to happen have determined that it was because of a lack of empathy for the victims.

In order to abuse, murder, or torture in a premeditated way, perpetrators must lack empathy for their victims. The easiest way to accomplish this is to dehumanize the victims. Nazis taught that Jews were sub-human, that they did not experience dreams, hopes, and suffering as all humans do. Thus, murdering Jews was akin to stepping on ants or killing mosquitoes. How many places in the world today do we see this same scenario being played out?

Scapegoating others is a defense mechanism that allows the persons doing the scapegoating to not take responsibility for their own pain.  If you blame your ex-girlfriends for all your failed relationships, then you never have to look inside yourself to your own shortcomings. If you were physically abused as a child and take out you anger on immigrants or blacks or gays, then you never have to acknowledge your own pain. And if an entire country can blame their economic problems on the Jews, then citizens can look the other way as the Jews are systematically exterminated.

Empathy for others begins with empathy for one's own pain. If one refuses to acknowledge the hurt within or beats one's self up relentlessly for hurting, then defense mechanisms take over, the most destructive of which is scapegoating. Those who use scapegoating as a defense against dealing with their own pain can do great damage to others and to themselves.

Scapegoating is responsible for most of the atrocities in the world, both on a grand scale such as with Hitler and in our individual lives. How many times have you taken your pain out on innocent bystanders? How many times have you taken your pain out on those you love by overreacting in abusive or aggressive ways?

Peter Hedges' powerful quote is a recipe for empathy. If we could all work at developing empathy for others, particularly those who annoy us, we would live in a better world. If we could all work toward developing empathy for our own pain, then the healing process could begin. This is the wisdom and importance of empathy. Counseling can help facilitate this process.

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All Text and many photos by Carl Benedict

"Our very life depends on everything's recurring till we answer from within."  Robert Frost