Empathy & Altruism

Here again we start with a definition of Empathy: identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives. Or this: the ability to sense and understand someone else’s feelings as if they were one’s own. Or this: the power of entering into another’s personality and imaginatively experiencing his feelings

Altruism is defined as: unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others. Or as: behavior by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its species.

Now that we know what each is, lets look at what each has to do with the other and ask the question, ‘Is your Empathy altruistic?’

The Combining of Altruism & Empathy

Having Empathy without altruism, means having the ability to place yourself in another’s shoes and see through their eyes, and yet do absolutely nothing about their plight, because it is not self serving to do so. Having altruism without Empathy, well that’s just suicidal. It means you act without thinking or understanding, even though there is no tangible benefit to you. You give without reserve to one and all, until there is nothing left of you to give. So in the end, it benefits no one.

The combining of these two different concepts, altruism and empathy, is the hope of society we all desperately need to witness at the darkest times in our lives. It is the willingness to understand and the willingness to give combined, without expectation of accolades or reciprocation. It is beautiful and it is humbling.

The Question: Is Your Empathy Altruistic?

This is a tough topic for anyone, much less an Empath, because it asks you to dig deep within yourself to examine the motives behind your own actions. And this is one thing that Empaths are generally very bad at doing. But in saying this, I include myself in this comment. It is not one of judgment, but instead one simply of honesty.

In asking the question, ‘is your empathy altruistic?’, even I must go inward and look at my own motives. Otherwise, what a hypocrite I would be. It is my hope that in viewing a small piece of me, you are able to view a small piece of yourself, as well.

My empathy was born out of abuse at a very young age. It was a reactionary reflex at first, born to test the waters of those that surrounded me. I learned to observe others, to gauge reaction. And emotion was the prime base of learning for me. So when I was younger, my empathy was purely a self serving reaction, for safety and protection.

As I grew older, this same reactionary reflex came in very handy as I waded my way through a group of high schoolers who were abusers and manipulators. I watched, and helped where I could, but always had my guard up because I had more than one person threaten me. I even had one boyfriend hold a pair of scissors to my throat. So was my empathy, at this point, altruistic? Only up to the point of my own safety.

In both of these examples, I would use empathy to help heal another, so I didn’t have to feel their pain anymore. Because the more I felt their pain inside me, the more it forced me to focus on me ~ the one place I was afraid of being for any stretch of time.

I was the Queen of Avoidance.

It wasn’t until I was left all by myself, that I found I couldn’t run away anymore. Because without family and friends around me, I was left with only me. And for a while I tried drowning myself in books, music, and/or television, but that only went so far. And then I was left with the stark reality of being alone with myself. My empathy served no one at this point, not even myself.

And then the very first altruistic thing I did was for me. I know it sounds like a self serving statement. But when one looks at themselves as something foreign ~ a stranger ~ it is as much an act of altruism as it is one of serving the self. Because here is where ego meets true self.

Understand that this was not an overnight thing. I didn’t wake up one day and think, ‘oh I’m healed and can help others now.’ I didn’t look at myself and see a person who was good wholesome and pure. (lol) I have done things in my life that, by rights, I should bear shame for, for the rest of my life. But then it hit me, that the only one who did not accept me or forgive me, was me. And I had been locked in a hellish prison of my own making, for longer than I can recount. The irony was that I closed the door and I held the key.

My first altruistic act of empathy, was turning the key and setting myself free in acceptance and forgiveness. It wasn’t the forgiveness and acceptance of another person, but toward myself, from myself. And from there, altruism in empathy became, not a once in a lifetime miracle, but an everyday act of faith. Giving did not depend upon what I would receive. And having my name remembered, became nonexistent when compared with the simple message, ‘you are not alone.’ It was the one message I desperately needed to hear, but never did. And its the one thing I offer to you. You are not alone in this journey, and neither am I. ^_^

So, from here we journey back to the beginning of this discussion and a single question, ‘is your empathy altruistic?’ Perhaps we should change it to, ‘How altruistic is your empathy?’.

But remember, in answering this question, it does not matter if you find your empathy is not in the least altruistic. That will come in time. What is important now, is that you are aware of the question, not the answer. The answer is what comes at the end of a long journey. The question, on the other hand, is the beginning of that journey.


~ by Misuchi Sakurai on March 24, 2009.

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