31 January 2013

A Hard Life Without Empathy

I recently met a young man whose life was “made.” His parents were rich and give him a generous monthly stipend, he had a fat trust account waiting for him when he turned 25 years old and had lacked little (if anything) growing up. Interestingly, he was not a spoiled brat. Not in the traditional sense at least. He was well mannered, generally respected the space and possessions of others and even had used his intelligence for somewhat worthwhile causes.

In addition to a wealthy upbringing, his life was “made” in other ways: he had never had a rough patch in his life. High School had been a breeze, his family was almost picture perfect, people flocked to him to be his friend, he had had a one girlfriend and had never experience manual labor.

As I associated with him during his first semester of college, I grew to enjoy his generally pleasing demeanor and upbeat, good, clean, fun loving attitude. While we did not hang out a lot, he lived with some friends of mine and so I would periodically run into him.

I was tempted to be jealous of him from time to time—I love the thought of a trust account and the thought of how my life would be different if everything had been handed to me—until one day when we were talking about his academic goals. He was schooling for a degree in Business Management and planned of getting a Master of Business Administration after that. I am always confused as to why anyone would get a degree in Business Management (because it teaches so few real skills and instead stuffs the heads of young people full of theories on how businesses should work), so I inquired why he was pursuing such. The answer: because his grandfather did (and got rich from it) and his dad did (and got rich from it) so too would he (and, he hoped, would get rich from it). The fatal flaw in his thinking is that he had no idea what “business” even is let alone important things like how his ancestors got rich with business degrees. He just knew that they did.

At first it was comical to probe this area of his mind but as naivety turned to ignorance and then to lack of comprehension I started to get worried. How could he get a degree in something that they knew nothing (and I mean nothing) about? To be clear, I do not expect most students pursuing university degrees or trade certificates to be experts in their field of study (if so, why would be there?). I do expect them to have at least a basic understanding of their chosen field. If one is going to spend four years of their life studying something, they should have some idea what that field entails.

There was none of that here. He knew that businesses ran stores and stores charged money and he swiped a card to pay them. He did not know how the store figured out what should go on which shelves where, what it meant to buy a share of stock or even how the store shelves got restocked. It was all a mystery.

Beyond the mysteries of the business degree he was seeking, I also became disturbingly aware of his complete lack of cognitive empathy. That is, he could not imagine what other people experienced (as opposed to affective empathy in which one can relate to others’ experiences because one has experienced similar).

That became glaringly obvious one day when he got into an argument with one of my former roommates. In this argument, the young man became vehement as he wondered how anyone could be such a failure as to be “old” (by which he was meaning, 25 years old) and not be married when he had arrange for his girlfriend of four years to marry him at age 21. Further, he could not understand how one could surpass 24 years old without getting a degree. Anyone, he exclaimed, who did not do well in school should just drop out because they were not smart enough to it and perseverance was a myth.

These were scathing words from one so young to one not much older; yet they were also very telling of the young man’s easy life. He had never known the difficulty of finding a girl that he liked who liked him back. His girlfriend seemed to not know that other boys even existed. Beyond that, he seemed to think that plans laid in teenage years were all but assured to come true. Thus a failure to be married at 21 was a failure to plan correctly and had little to do with one’s circumstances.

College, he believed, should be as easy as High School. High School was a venue that he saw very little of. He had one of the easiest High School experiences I had ever heard of including very, very generous absent policies. Further, college was just a recap of prior schooling so if you learned it the first time you should be able to show up for the test (and ace it) without issue. Perhaps ironically or perhaps tragically, he failed his first semester of classes.

Things like depression, sadness and all but the most obvious of physical pain (things like getting punched in the gut and not things like aching bones) were all just figments of imagination and as such could easily be overcome by simply dismissing the thoughts. Thus his spoiling was not in his meticulous manners but was an inability to understand the troubles of those around him.

In other words, his life had been so easy that he had never developed empathy sufficient enough to even imagine some of the most basic ailments of his associates. The saddest part for me was the realization that he would eventually have to trudge through sorrow equal to the joys he had known and that while in a dark valley that to most of us would be little more than a “bad day” he would feel like he had just descended into nethermost depths of the inner bowels of the earth never to emerge into the light of day again. Life, that which had once come so easy, was going to become seemingly very, very hard.

Only seemingly though because compared to everyone else, his troubles will be nothing new; indeed for some his soon-to-come difficult experiences would be seen as “everyday life.” This is where the darkness of his path will come. For where this young man could not have empathy for those with hard lives, others would not have sympathy for his easy life.

Realizing how much cognitive empathy has helped me in my life, I was no longer tempted to be jealous of my friend but, instead, to pity him and the smallness of his world—rather, the bigness of the world that he cannot yet understand—and the great pains of growth that I hope he accepts as he an opportunity to grasp the larger world.

That being said, if I could get a fat trust fund in addition to my empathy, I would take it.

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