Community and Empathy

Roy Herndon Smith

Community and empathy are as inherent in and definitional of human being as body and mind. To be human is to be empathically bound together in communities.

As bodies, we are communities of cells (which are communities of smaller living beings, which are communities of smaller entities, such as molecules and atoms, which are communities of particles) containing and contained by streaming seas of interactions—communities of bacteria and fungi, ecologies of plants and animals, environments of air, water, and soil, global atmospheres, and cosmic movements—all of which constitute us as we constitute them.

Empathy—feeling with others—is the defining movement of mind (or sentience, or awareness) as community. To sense or perceive something is, most fundamentally, to feel it, to form around and be formed by it. Empathy, as this feeling with, is the ground from which all the differentiated senses, feelings, and thoughts, including of “self,” “other,” and “reality,” originally and continually grow.

Recognition of community and empathy as foundational results in clarifying insights. For instance, maintaining the empathic communities we constitute and that constitute us is how we continue to exist. This truth clarifies why the opposition between selfishness and altruism is false, as is the opposition between the individual and the community. Individuals only exist in the physical, biological, and social communities they constitute as the communities constitute them. Individuals live and thrive, decline and die as these communities live and thrive, decline and die; and vice versa, thriving differentiated individuals constitute thriving communities. We sustain ourselves by sustaining others; we sustain others by sustaining ourselves.

Human scientists and others have observed that the most intense suffering human beings experience results from being cut off—isolated, shunned, tortured, or treated solely as an object—from empathic others. Such broken relations physically threaten us by cutting us off from the co-creative, interdependent networks, or communities, in which we physically nurture, shelter, protect, comfort, and heal each other. Empathic breaks psychologically threaten us by depriving us of the mutual trust and confirmation that is foundational to awareness and self-consciousness. But, most fundamentally, they threaten us, more than does death, ontologically—they attack the possibility of our being who and what we are. Consider the difference between the deaths of babies abandoned in orphanages in which they are never held or comforted and the deaths of people, including newborns, remembered by the communities in which they lived. The emotional abandonment of babies is horrifying because it denies and destroys their humanity, their membership in the human community. The communal mourning of deceased members is sad, but it is also an affirmation of the humanity, the very being, of the members and their communities.

Because communities constitute who we are, we tend to seek to maintain communities we are currently members of and to leave abusive communities only for other communities that promise to be more supportive. This tendency is realistic, even when it results in someone staying in a dangerous situation. For instance, when abused people remain with or go back to abusive partners or families, they often do so because they know of or find no community or relationship other than the abusive one they are in that will sustain and protect them. All too often, this choice is existential, between having a home and being homeless, between having enough food and not having enough food, between having some protection and no protection against life-threatening attacks, between life and death.

Because communities and empathy are primal and foundational, perceived threats to empathic communities result in primal terror. Communities respond to such terror with three defenses. They split reality between the defended “good,” which they seek to protect, and the perceived “evil” source of the threat, which they flee from or fight against. They organize reality hierarchically under or around leaders who focus the communities on the perceived priority of protecting the “good” against “evil” enemies. And they objectify reality, construing it as constituted by objects that leaders define, observe, possess and discard, control and attack, use and ignore, value and devalue, make and unmake, create and destroy.

These defenses are necessary and often effective responses to acute and imminent existential threats. For instanced, when faced with an imminent flood, a town needs a leader who will organize the residents around the tasks of protecting homes with sandbags and, where walls of sandbags won’t work, on fleeing to higher ground; such work may require a measure of splitting and objectification—of, for instance, viewing nature as the objective enemy we, the good people of the town, are fighting against, fleeing from, and attempting to control.

However, when, in response to repeated, persistent, or continuous existential threats, a community institutionalizes the defenses, they themselves become the major sources of existential threats. Institutionalized splitting results in civil and external wars against people and communities identified as enemies. Institutionalized hierarchies and objectification result in class, racial, gender, ethnic, cultural, and other divisions, in which groups that identify themselves as “leaders” or “rulers” construe “others” as objects they define, possess, control, use, discard, and destroy. Split-off “enemies” and oppressed and objectified individuals and communities tend to respond by deploying the same defenses against those individuals and communities that have attacked, oppressed, and objectified them, often resulting in escalating cycles of violence and radical suffering that destroy the communities that constitute and sustain us. Such escalating cycles of violence, radical suffering, and destruction and self-destruction of communities characterizes the history of hierarchical societies, including those in which violent revolutions have replaced one hierarchy with another.

These institutionalized defenses also threaten communities in an indirect, but more insidious and fundamental, way. Treating another as an enemy to be destroyed or fled from, a subject to be dominated, or an object to be possessed, used, or discarded breaks the empathic bonds that constitute us and reality as communities. Communities can heal from empathic breaks that are the result of temporary defensive responses to imminent threats, but, in the worlds institutionalized defenses construct, these breaks seem to be unavoidable and inherent features of nature, society, selves, and even reality as a whole. In theses defensive worlds, rather than empathically feeling with each other, the world, and ourselves, we treat our relations with each other, the world, and ourselves as battlefields in which hierarchs lead us on missions to defend our possession of maximum amounts of objectified “goods,” including not only material necessities, such as food and shelter, but also commodified labor, meaning, pleasure, truth, beauty, and love, against objectified “evil” natural, social, and psychological forces. The result is radical alienation from nature, others, and ourselves. This alienation both accurately reflects the broken empathic bonds that result from institutionalized splitting, hierarchy, and objectification and exacerbates this brokenness, as alienated and terrified disintegrating communities and individuals desperately resort again to the institutionalized defenses that are destroying them.

A healing response to the spiraling cycles of devastation and radical suffering institutionalized defenses cause begins with the recognition that, where there is sentient life, there are empathy and community. The defenses, even when institutionalized, are responses to perceived threats to the empathic communities that constitute and sustain us. Institutionalized defenses are like auto-immune disorders, in which the body’s defenses attack the organs that are necessary for life. Healing responses to auto-immune disorders begin with identifying, nurturing, and strengthening the organs and systems that nurture and sustain life. Similarly, healing responses to the effects of the institutionalized defenses begin with identifying, nurturing, and strengthening existing empathic bonds and the communities they constitute. More specifically, a healing, compassionate response to the suffering that results from institutionalized defending proceeds through the following steps:

1. Identify specifically how and where, in a particular and concrete situation,
a) people are already empathically bonding with each other and the world around them and forming explicit and implicit communities;
b) institutionalized splitting, hierarchy, and objectification are breaking empathic bonds and thus threatening communities;
c) people are already responding to the threats institutionalized defenses pose by strengthening their empathic bonds with each other and the world and their communities.
2. Strengthen, build on, and extend the range of the ways people are already empathically bonding and maintaining their communities in the face of existential threats and radical suffering.
3. When a community or individual does deploy splitting, hierarchy, or objectification to defend against a threat, carefully and deliberately work to limit these defensive responses as much as possible, to empathize with those who are suffering the effects of using and being the targets of these defenses, and to deescalate the conflicts their deployment causes by empathically attending to the threats and the causes of the threats and seeking ways of responding to them that minimize the use of the defenses.
4. Deliberately and continually confirm, through thoughts, speech, and actions the specific ways empathy and community inhere in, constitute, and sustain us.