Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Get this empathy monkey off my back.

A couple of weeks ago British Prime Minister David Cameron spoke about Britain's "slow-motion moral collapse" and "Broken Britain".

There are pockets of our society, he said, that are frankly "sick".

"For me it is clear that the root cause of this mindless selfishness is the same thing I have spoken about for years. It is a complete lack of responsibility in our society."

Hitting back, former Prime Minister Tony Blair declared, "The key is to understand that they aren't symptomatic of society at large. Britain as a whole is not in the grip of some general moral decline.

"The truth is that many of these people are from families that are profoundly dysfunctional, operating on completely different terms from the rest of society, either middle class, or poor".

My very weak response to the above is: What? And you let this happen?

And my equally poor response to their bulls**t is printed below.

And what makes it so much more pathetic, is that is it all true. All of it.

Empathy is the capacity to recognize, and to some extent, share feelings (such as sadness or happiness) that are being experienced by another.

Empathy is the key cornerstone in genuine human relationships. Empathy is conscious. It means one with empathy feels compassion, while those without do not take into account other people's emotions.

All well and good.

But what if you are saddled with it, let's say you are burdened with chronic empathy as opposed to acute, or the seasonal variety? How do you get this grasping monkey off your back? At times, his grip is so tight it becomes hard to breathe. Your mind races, you need to do something. But what?

You wrestle with the absolute imperative of making some sort of contribution to society, but the monkey has another little trick up his furry sleeve. It is called "consequences".

And it comes in all shapes, sizes and circumstances.

If you witness a grave injustice in your workplace, do you rush out and report it, even though it will probably cost you your job?

If you are living paycheck-to-paycheck in a tight job market, well, that is quite a consequence.

Are you a pragmatic, or a coward if you turn away?

At Ridealist we are frequently approached by organizations from at home (U.K.), here in Hong Kong, and others as far away as Uganda, Kenya, Peru, India.. you name it.

The little monkey jumps on our back and squeezes the empathy nerve with all his might.

You can't sleep, seriously. You spend hours, days, weeks even, trying to come up with a solution.

But faced with the reality of not being in a position to do anything, almost exclusively the result of a lack of funding, the feeling of hopelessness and inadequacy can be quite debilitating.

And then, in the end, defeated and demoralized, you have to say no.

It can really mess up your life. Seriously. The disappointment is tangible.

However, it is often more than that. Disappointment is one thing. But why does this disappointment so often come dressed as shame?

You tried, you failed, there is no shame in that.

If you think that, then you are lucky. Obviously, you don't have a resident empathy monkey.

We could have sold the car. Moved to a cheaper apartment. We could have done any number of things, but we didn't.

Doing that would introduce consequences WE would have to live with and perhaps lessen our overall effectiveness to help others (and ourselves) in other situations in the future.

And diminish our questionable quality of life, of course.

Sound's more like an excuse than a real reason, doesn't it? But we can convince ourselves of it.

But to function, the empathy monkey sufferer needs to take it a step further.

We need to learn and embrace the magic steps required to enjoy the soft release of "compassion fatigue".

Are there any introduction courses you can take in "indifference"?

Sadly and honestly, that is where I am heading right now. And I know it isn't a good place.

But I have a life too. And I don't want to spend it miserable thinking about the things I could have done, the things I should have done. The things I didn't.

I am doing what I can - okay? Ridealist is doing what it can.

What the hell do you want?

Pause, glass of California white. Think.

Is there an alternative?

Yes, I believe there is but it will take a huge leap of faith in the ability of people like Cameron, Blair and their ilk, to see just a little beyond their re-election. Look way beyond, to their legacy.

It is possible they could create a culture where whistleblowers will not be punished by being sentenced to live on a barely sustainable unemployment benefit? Create a culture where workers are not subject to arbitrary abuse by managers? Actually this creates more young thugs than you'd really credit!

Create a culture where Civil Servants are actually civil and believe they truly serve as "employees" of the people? All of the people.

Create a culture where teachers can do their job, get the respect they deserve, and still live long enough put adequate food on the table. And of course not have to worry that their car hasn't been vandalised while they were in class.

Create a culture where parents are held more accountable for the actions of their children.

Instead of broad and sweeping budget cuts in institutions that serve the public, and only line the pockets of bankers, corporations and institutional investment brokers, give fiscally responsible non-profits and community groups the tools to do what we do and let us feed our monkey's appetite.

Perhaps even start a colony of empathy monkeys.

But this would need to be initiated by likes of Cameron, Clegg and Miliband. People obviously unburdened by the empathy monkeys.

Our elected leaders.

I am inclined to finish this with a big sigh and say, ah well, I tried, but who really gives a sh*t.


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