Is it truly possible to empathize with others? In order to answer this question an understanding of despair and consolation is necessary. Soren Kierkegaard said that the most common form of despair is not being who you are. But what does it mean to be yourself and why is it so hard? Is who we are and what we do not meaningful, mainly in relation to other people? Somebody once told me that since he entered his thirties, he realized that until then, his life existed in the purpose of pleasing others. I was somewhat younger at the time, and I remember thinking how sad it must be to achieve such an important understanding this late in life. Meanwhile, I’m thirty something myself and only now I begin to see what he meant.
What I understand thus far is that we act as though the recognition of others is necessary to give meaning to our lives. After all, where do you stand when nobody sees you? To be seen is better than not to be seen. In this sense, recognition doesn’t need to be positive. To be feared, hated or avoided are also forms of acknowledgement.
The importance of being recognized rests on our sensitivity for attention. Evolutionary speaking it’s possible to explain this sensitivity as follows. We assume that our chances to survive will increase when we draw as much attention as possible from our caregivers. This is a speculative statement. However, given the helplessness of a newborn baby, it seems a rather acceptable idea. It takes, for example, more than a year before babies are able to accomplish their first steps. Why then, would they quietly wait until they receive the necessary care? Attracting attention is in this respect vital for our survival.
At this point, we connect the evolutionary viewpoint with a psychoanalytic perspective. The premise here is that we offer a great sacrifice in our quest for attention. We behave in order to affect others. The sacrifice means that we repress, ignore or deny our own desire. Acting on this desire constitutes a threat. We run the risk of losing attention and thus recognition and in the end our right of being. This is essentially a psychoanalytic thought. At the same time, it’s an explanation of why it’s so hard to really be ourselves.
Being successful in attracting attention is in a sense the opposite of being happy. To be seen arouses a momentary feeling of fulfillment for which we hunt time and again. This results in repetitive ways that are hard to resist. It becomes, in other words, very similar to an addiction. Somewhere we know that we enforce the attention we receive. We also know that it’s based on something that we’re not. However, by stopping this behavior, we risk losing our source of recognition. To keep going, on the other hand, results in self-alienation. Could the desperation where Kierkegaard referred to originate from this self-destructive pattern?
It’s here that we must seek the importance of consolation. I’m not talking about the superficial comfort we obtain by imagining certain thoughts that enable us to handle the world. Instead, I’m talking about profound solace. The one that arises when we discover that we cannot fight for our own recognition. On one side, this must be a terrifying go through because we are forced to give up control. On the other side, it’s a great relief to notice that we still exist, even without our constant efforts to be seen. At this moment, it’s sensible to accept that recognition is not something we can offer ourselves, and at the same time we cannot demand it from others. In essence, this experience has the potential to set us free.
Empathy means to feel for other people. Furthermore, it means to see them as radically different. These last words are from Emmanuel Levinas. Out of this, I understand that in the opposite direction, we force others into a role in our world. In this world, we are the all-pervasive reference point. We do not see them as independent in their worries, joy or misery. We reduce them to a position in a web of meanings and explanations that we spun around ourselves. And so the other becomes a tool for us to use at our discretion. In our need for recognition, they are the means by which we ward off our despair. Is it possible to see others as radically different and to empathize with them, if we abide to this self-centered perspective? I don’t believe so. What I do believe is that profound solace, as described above, has the potential to set us free. This way, we no longer need to appropriate others. It creates the necessary space to see them as independent and radically different from ourselves. In other words, it provides the possibility to really feel for them.