Empathy as understanding the assumptions behind the rigid reflexes
Do you get upset about somebody’s behaviour? Say, a public
figure such as a politician or someone close to you, your spouse, kids,
parents, friends? Then that is an indication that you haven’t empathized with
the person enough. Well, that is the hypothesis I would like to explore in this
Easterine Kire Iralu’s book “A terrible
matriarchy” begins with a childhood memory of the protagonist, Dielieno, a
girl coming of age in Kohima, Nagaland, an eastern state in India. She
remembers an incident when her granny is serving chicken curry to Lieno and her
brothers. Lieno, who is four-five years old, tells her granny, “I want a leg
piece”. Granny says, “Who is asking you, stupid?” and serves the leg piece to
Lieno’s brother. Then comes the sermon from granny, “Leg pieces are for the
boys, girls should eat the other pieces.”
When Lieno is six/seven years old, she is sent to stay with
her granny who continues to make Lieno work hard, e.g. fetching the water from
nearby stream, getting the stove ready, feeding the chicken etc. Granny
believes that girls don’t need education or affection or time to play or even a
good piece of meat with gravy! They need to become docile and hardworking in
order to become good housewives. More importantly, on every opportunity, she
makes it a point to tell Lieno that boys are more important than girls. Naturally,
Lieno grows up hating her granny.
After Lieno’s granny expires, for the first time, Lieno talks
to her mom about granny’s tyrannical behaviour. Her mom feels bad about it but
also gives the background as to why granny would have become like that. Granny’s
mom didn’t have a brother and she had to lose all the ancestral property to
other relatives because only boys inherited property. That had a deep impact on
her and she favoured boys all her life. After hearing this story, Lieno felt
that she understood granny better. Her grudge turned into compassion. That is
the beginning of empathy. What exactly is happening here?
To understand this process of empathizing, it helps
see thought as a system of conditioned reflexes. A reflex fires automatically
when touched. When the knee bone is hit, it jerks. That’s an elementary reflex.
When the vehicle in front slows down, we break automatically. That’s a reflex. Our
thought process is governed by millions of such reflexes that help us carry out
our daily activity. As we learn new skills such as driving or form new
opinions, we form new reflexes and over a period they fire automatically.
Some reflexes carry a special property of “necessity”. For
example, we assume that the ground will hold firm as we walk or the cycle will
turn left when we turn the handle left. However, sometimes the result doesn’t
match our expectations. For example, a cycle may turn right when we turn the
handle left. And then we realize that we can’t ride the cycle (check out the
video “The backwards
brain bicycle” above). Because the reflexes fire automatically, we turn the
handle in the same direction where we want the cycle to turn. This happens in
spite of the knowledge that we ought to turn the handle the other way for this
cycle. Destin had to practice riding the backwards-brain cycle every day for 8 months to change the reflex. That’s
the power of a conditioned reflex.
Some of our beliefs and assumptions are far more deeply and
tightly ingrained than the cycling reflexes. For example, for Lieno’s granny,
boys are more important than girls is one such assumption that has become a
rigid reflex. So, no matter how much you try to explain to her, she will resist changing her opinion. Granny has almost no choice in her behaviour in this matter.
Once we see that the behaviour of a person is a result of
almost mechanical and rigid reflexes, it becomes difficult to sustain grudge
against the person. You don’t get angry with a computer or a car, do you?
Empathy is that understanding of rigid reflexes. Empathy doesn’t mean you agree
or like the behaviour. When Lieno felt she understood granny better, she still
didn’t agree with her behaviour. She just didn’t feel the need to hold a grudge,
Whenever you feel upset about somebody’s
behaviour, you may want to ask yourself, “Could this behaviour be a result of a
rigid reflex? If so, what might be the assumption(s) behind such a reflex?” source: Thought as a set of conditioned reflexes is explored in detail in David Bohm's "Thought as a system"