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How Deep Is Your Empathy?

It used to be accepted amongst those who study the mind, that one of the defining elements of a psychopath is the inability to experience empathy. Psychopathy is, of course, an imbalance of the mind, regarded as a mental illness and a highly dangerous one. Today, psychologists have amended their views and determined that psychopaths can feel empathy; they just choose not to. ​

Yesterday, I made a journey that was at one point interrupted by heavy machinery clearing a blockage caused by an avalanche. To my horror, I found myself waiting behind a ‘Death Wagon’, one of the vile semis used for transporting helpless animals to their terrifying deaths. I often encounter them upon my travels, and when I do, they are usually empty. The shippers, perhaps in response to public distaste, prefer not expose the delicate consumers to the terror being experienced by poor distressed creatures being ferried to their doom. After all, thinking of them only as slabs of pre-packaged flesh in supermarket chiller cabinets is so much easier than being exposed to the truth of their slaughter, isn’t it? I couldn’t tell if the semi, from a company called ‘Cattle Drive’ (I imagine they thought it was a witty play upon words) was full since I was behind the vehicle and not to the side, and unable to see any potential occupants. Their were no airholes at the back to betray contents, and the only opening was a small hole on the upper of the semi’s two tiers, measuring approximately 36” x 24”, at the top of unloading ramp. But as my eyes wandered over the Death Wagon, a nose appeared at the opening, and I realised to my horror that it was full of cows on their way to die. It will come as no surprise to the regular reader that I find the experience of seeing these poor wretched creatures immensely stressful. Suffice it to say that I found it a very upsetting position to be in, made all the worse by the certain knowledge but my personal agonies were nothing in comparison to those of the unfortunate occupants of the Death Wagon. I found myself unable to tear my eyes away from the single cow that was close enough to the hole to breathe fresh air, and after a few moments it pushed its head out so that it could see the scene behind the semi, and I could clearly see it. For what seemed like a long time our eyes met. It had the beautiful, gentle and fathomless eyes possessed by all their species, and it watched me with a tragic expressiveness few other creatures can convey. It was a devastating experience, because it took no anthropomorphising on my part for me to feel overwhelmed by the emotions that it, and all of the bovines imprisoned within must have been experiencing. They knew their dreadful fate, but were powerless to do anything. It was a pitiful situation of utter helplessness, made all the worse for me by the knowledge that their experience was being repeated a millionfold, at that very moment, elsewhere. At that precise moment I suddenly became aware of the lyrics of the song I was listening to. It was Annie Lennox’s ‘Legend In My Living Room’ and she had arrived at the point where she repeatedly says: “Have mercy on me”. The irony was as inescapable as the cow’s terrifying end. But then my attention was caught by movement my peripheral vision picked up in my car’s wingmirrors. The doors of the vehicle behind were opening and a man emerged smoking a cigarette. On the passenger side a younger female got out, and the man pointed towards the projecting head of the wild eyed cow. Then they both starting laughing. After a few seconds, the man did what was clearly meant to be an imitation of the cow, and they both seemed to find this hilarious. I looked on aghast. Clearly, the cows were being transported for one reason, and one reason alone. Obviously, they were uncomfortable and deeply distressed. Only a moron could have missed the plaintiff appeal on the cow’s face and its anguished expression. What kind of a person could not empathise with another living creature? What manner of monster would mock their suffering and find humour in their torment? How was it possible to find any aspect of the circumstances even vaguely amusing? I felt suddenly cold and miserable. The scene played out for another 10 minutes before the snow was finally cleared away and our respective journey’s continued. I lost sight of the Death Wagon after overtaking it. For me at least, there was some merciful escape and I did not have to face the evidence of another creature’s misery any longer. Who knows how long theirs continued. It is absolutely certain that as you are reading this, those sentient, harmless, loving creatures have met an unspeakable fate.

Despite changes to thinking about what defines a psychopath, it is still widely accepted that cruelty towards animals, when evidenced in a child’s development, is a significant indicator of developing psychopathy, since it demonstrated lack of empathy for a living creature. 

How far away from being a full-blown and dangerous psychopath is an individual who either cannot, or chooses not to empathise with the feelings of another being? ​

​​Empathy is an interesting, if challenging skill to develop. It takes us outside of our easy, convenient self-focus, and forces us to cope with a perspective not of our making. This may be an uncomfortable experience, as we try to adapt to, or incorporate other viewpoints into our narrow field of focus. Maintaining an empathetic mindset, outside of the moment, can bring more discomfort to already difficult lives. We may find ourselves experiencing otherwise unrelatable challenges, confronting things we would rather look away from, dealing with abhorrent perspectives, or even being forced to acknowledge pain. So it’s far easier to reside within our own personal, closeted comfort zone, and view the world from what, in many respects, is the only point of view that matters.

But what is the implication for us if we do this? Are there any repercussions that we need be aware of that should call into question the casual way in which we might dismiss another’s outlook?

That which we do affects all of those around us, from a plethora of perspectives. Our interconnectedness is an inalienable component of existence, and despite the disassociation we may feel from others, ultimately we will all return to being part of the same thing.

Without empathy, our measurement of ourselves is self-referencing and limited. It allows us to dismiss all that is outside of ourselves as inconsequential. It stops us from making balanced assessments of those around us.

Empathy, the ability to put yourself in the context of another being, is an essential ingredient in personal development. Without it, we are a long way from being able to properly comprehend precisely what and why we are; let alone fully exercise key aspects of being, such as compassion, humility, kindness and caring.

We may all too easily imagine that we have fully acquitted ourselves against this criteria. We are considerate, charitable, have humility and are generally 'kind' to others. Yet while we are only capable of extending the scope of our empathy to ourselves or those like us (i.e. humans), we still have an awful lot to learn. It must encompass all beings. And if we have not translated feelings of empathy to a personal commitment to act upon our understanding, and actually done something about it, we're not even out of the starting gate.

Eating the flesh of other beings is a straightforward 'lacking in empathy' act.

Eating anything that comes from animals is an omission of extending empathy far enough.

Any level of awareness of the suffering experienced by other beings in having their lives taken, or what is rightfully theirs stolen from them, still accompanied by the choice not to be vegan, is a choice in limiting empathy.

A decision not to exercise empathy is one out of balance for an old soul. It brings an individual closer to psychopathy - an imbalance of the mind. 

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