I do, however, see a lot of aversion going on around me.
Charlie Sheen became an overnight meme on the internet and a catch-all social reference in conversation while the earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear disasters were happening in Japan. Have you ever noticed there’s always something very small and distracting that becomes very popular during disasters in remote places? Whenever I wake up to a Twitter feed that’s full of references to Justin Bieber’s new haircut or a pop singer’s nude pics, I wonder what war started while I was sleeping.
Also, comment below if you’ve ever had a boyfriend or girlfriend who could not stand to watch the news because it was too depressing. (Statistically speaking, there will be more comments about a girlfriend who couldn’t watch the news since women have been scientifically proven to have a greater capacity for empathy.) On the other hand, I force myself to watch the horrors of the world and feel completely paralyzed with the sadness that I feel. I feel like making records is such a vain luxury in the context of the greater human suffering in the world—especially when we’re scheduled to play Japan in May and it hasn’t been cancelled yet. I imagine myself standing on a stage and trying to communicate love and hope and loss and beauty to a bunch of people that have been through more than I can imagine. To me, it seems borderline offensive. By the same token, even trying to talk about or sell our new record right now seems heartless.
On the other hand, when I think about trying to raise money for the victims of the tsunami, I feel like I’m trying to become the face of altruism or something. Do you ever feel that way? Crushed, helpless and impotent in the face of an event? Here is where I think empathy actually starts to become problematic: When your connection to other people goes beyond compassion and into a kind of nervous collapse. When I was younger—say high school-age—I had this happen to me constantly. Any horrible thing that happened anywhere in the world would make me feel like I shouldn’t be allowed to have happiness on that day.
More than anything, I fear that most people in the world are losing the empathic trait and becoming more cutthroat, more self-interested and more focused on the bottom line—socially acceptable psychopaths set loose to run the world. In fact, a new University of Michigan study shows that children today show 40 percent less empathy than those of the 1980s. This is a shocking figure, considering that empathy is learned at a very early age. It’s basically an extension of “monkey-see, monkey do”: we see our parents’ emotions and mirror them back as a way to learn how to experience and express emotion. So to be lacking in such a basic trait seems hard to believe. But as I was feeling more and more discouraged by the state of the world, the tragedy in Japan, everyone’s utter lack of empathy and my own absurdly self-destructive empathy orgy, I came across this in The Wall Street Journal about compassion training in Buddhist Monks:
“Using the brain scan called functional magnetic resonance imaging, the scientists pinpointed regions that were active during compassion meditation. In almost every case, the enhanced activity was greater in the monks’ brains than the novices’. Activity in the left prefrontal cortex (the seat of positive emotions such as happiness) swamped activity in the right prefrontal (site of negative emotions and anxiety), something never before seen from purely mental activity. A sprawling circuit that switches on at the sight of suffering also showed greater activity in the monks. So did regions responsible for planned movement, as if the monks’ brains were itching to go to the aid of those in distress.”
This would seem to me that we can not only train compassion, but train willingness to act! That’s exactly what I need!