• Mr Phil O'Sophy
    1.3k
    I've been reading Frankl's book recently as I'm doing my dissertation on Nihilism and the book seemed like an obvious starter for an insight into meaninglessness. After reading through a lot of it and being brought to tears at many sections of his writing, I felt the need to look up the concentration camp footage. I already have a vivid imagination, but with the help of testimony and visual footage, I can bring myself to a complete state of terror at the thought of being in such a situation; as either victim or perpetrator.

    My mind often flutters about at how I think I would act ideally, but it is usually followed by a pessimistic voice that reminds me that the ideal is never usually how things pan out in reality. My throat quivers, my heart becomes heavy, my eyes water and my ears pop, while I imagine myself being put in such a situation, and rather than just playing out my ideal reactions, I force myself to imagine that I had not the strength to overcome such adversity, and that I would be counted among those who lost all hope; who lost the will to live; or caved under peer pressure and become one of the monsters. Fear overwhelms me in such a moment. I find that its usually the ones that think themselves the toughest; the most virtuous; the bravest; that crack quickly under pressure. But then I don't know where that puts me knowing that bit of information.

    Am I, by thinking about my awareness of such a thing, trying to pursuade myself that I am not that kind of person? That is, the one who thinks himself tough but cracks under pressure. By being aware of it, am I not falling into the very same trap, and possibly deluding myself into thinking that because I thought of such a thing, that I must be among the tough - that I would not lose hope nor become a monster? How self deluded can we be? I doubt my intentions to the point that I don't know where I stand.

    Another thought that enters my head, is that in trying to put myself into their shoes (the victims of such horror or the monsters that caused it) and experiencing such dread in doing so, I am brought to the awareness that as vivid as my imagination is, that it could never equate to actually experiencing such horrors. How could I ever possibly understand such suffering? Such fear? Or such anger? -- but it is this realisation that heightens my experience of dread even further. If the fear I experience in the imagining of such circumstances is so terrifying, how much more terrifying the actual experience would be. This only makes my experience of such dread that much more acute, yet still I know that it cannot equate to the reality of such suffering.

    So my question is this, what use is this empathy if it only furthers my confusion? All I know is that people being capable of such deeds terrifies me. That I may be capable of committing the same horrors against others under certain conditions terrifies me. I am filled with terror at such thoughts; yet alas, it is only thoughts. As I think this, the sun is shining; the skies are blue; my garden is green and flowering; the birds are tweeting; my daughter is playing joyfully downstairs and my wife is making her food. I am healthy, safe, housed, well fed and happy. I have friends and family whom I have a sincere and close connection with. I love them dearly and they love me. There is such a terrible juxtaposition between the thoughts of such circumstances, and the reality I live right now.

    I've by no means had a perfect life. Things were not always so peachy. It is only in the past decade or so that things have improved tremendously. My youth was scattered with tragedy and pain. Death and grief. Anger and hate. Fear and trembling. But still, reading such stories, seeing such videos, makes all my suffering feel so trivial. So pathetic. Yet even so, the pain was so real.

    I don't know what to think. I don't know who I am. I don't know how brave I would be, or how virtuous. There are so many things I don't know about myself. About my future. And to top it all off, I don't know how to feel about that.

    I live in a superposition. Where I am equal parts joyous and depressed. I feel such conflicting feelings simultaneously, and yet in such a bizarre fashion I feel calm in the face of it. Had you stumbled into my room while thinking such things, you would find me sat by my desk in silence with my head in a book or on my laptop; and I doubt you would be any wiser to the contents of my brain had you not read this post.

    Does this make sense? Can anyone relate? Is it possible to relate? It feels as though through empathy, I am to some degree able to posit myself in the mind of the other who sits before me; or that maybe someone else will be able to put themselves in my shoes by reading this. But my inner skeptic tells me to not be so sure. Maybe I am doomed to never understand the suffering of others, while feeling pain and dread at the thought of it. Maybe I am doomed to never be understood, while others tell me how they completely understand and I wonder how deluded we all are.

    What are your thoughts?
  • TheMadFool
    3.4k
    The irony of empathy is that it's most necessary but scant amidst the powerful and is redundant but abundant in the downtrodden.
  • frank
    2.9k
    My mind often flutters about at how I think I would act ideallyMr Phil O'Sophy

    I went through a period of having recurring nightmares and seemed to be in a slow motion crisis when I started to think about my own capacity for monstrousness. I think the development of a Nazi or gang member happens slowly. One step at a time, a person becomes numb to his own conscience. Add an authority figure, various rationalizations and rewards to it, and the numbness just goes deeper and deeper.

    I think wondering if you could become the monster is the first step in avoiding it. People who are convinced of their own righteousness won't notice the signs that it's starting to happen. They won't see the moral grey-zone they're stepping into.

    My youth was scattered with tragedy and pain. Death and grief. Anger and hate. Fear and trembling. But still, reading such stories, seeing such videos, makes all my suffering feel so trivial. So pathetic. Yet even so, the pain was so real.Mr Phil O'Sophy

    Frankl's book had a big impact on me. Just the other day I said to myself: 'Everybody's pain takes up all the available space.' Frankl didn't think pain comes in different sizes so that life in a concentration camp could be compared and come out at the top of some hierarchy.

    Still, I think I have to contact the pain of losing one person I loved, and then add onto that losing my home, my community, and eventually my dignity. What happens when you lose everything?

    I remember once feeling really low, but nothing like a concentration camp victim, but this poem helped me. Maybe a little cheezy, but I think it's along the lines of what Frankl discovered:

    Out of the night that covers me,
    Black as the pit from pole to pole,
    I thank whatever gods may be
    For my unconquerable soul.

    In the fell clutch of circumstance
    I have not winced nor cried aloud.
    Under the bludgeonings of chance
    My head is bloody, but unbowed.

    Beyond this place of wrath and tears
    Looms but the Horror of the shade,
    And yet the menace of the years
    Finds and shall find me unafraid.

    It matters not how strait the gate,
    How charged with punishments the scroll,
    I am the master of my fate,
    I am the captain of my soul.
  • Pattern-chaser
    1.6k
    I only recently realised that empathy is not about feeling how I would feel in your situation, it's feeling how you feel in your situation. I just thought I'd offer that, for those who (like me) mistook the exact meaning of the word. If you already knew, well, I'm sorry for wasting your time. :wink:
  • Wallows
    8.7k
    This is going to sound pompous; but, I've been endowed with an exceptional memory, not photographic but my verbal memory is like a tape recorder.

    Having visited a extermination camp in Poland while I lived there the whole visit was seared into my memory. The book you sign with all previous visitors, the pile of shoes you see, the furnaces, the bones collected into a mausoleum, and the housing that these people had to live in. I've read somewhere that the incidence of depression and anxiety skyrockets for people who have visited such a place. I was also fairly young at the time too (16). The year later I suffered from a mental breakdown which I'm not going to say that it was due to the visit; but, rather a contributor.

    As a result of this I became frantically obsessed with Stoic thought and ethos. It was an attempt to desensitize myself from the whole experience. Around my 20's I picked up Frankel's book and was engrossed with the account of almost superhuman desire to help others however he could.

    It is very easy to fall in despair over the tragedy of the Holocaust after visiting and then reading about the first hand experience of a survivor. But, the proper response in my opinion is gratitude. To be thankful that such atrocities will most likely never happen again. However if anyone has a good enough memory and follows some of my babble I think that I have become paranoid and suspicious of others. I am also extremely hypervigilant about other people due to this experience and insight of what people can do. I see no way out of this predicament and take medication to stabilize me.

    I hope that can be my brief explanation of my reaction to the event and it's vivid description.
  • Mr Phil O'Sophy
    1.3k
    interesting comment. Although I find it strange when people talk as though the super rich don't have problems, which also shows a lack of empathy. The rich and the poor live in two different worlds, it makes sense that it would be hard for one to successfully transport themselves to the position of the other with the imagination alone.
  • Mr Phil O'Sophy
    1.3k
    I think the development of a Nazi or gang member happens slowly. One step at a time, a person becomes numb to his own conscience. Add an authority figure, various rationalizations and rewards to it, and the numbness just goes deeper and deeper.frank

    I can imagine these sort of things creep up on you. I often think about how love an turn people into monsters as well. People I've known who have resorted to disgusting behaviour as the result of what they perceive to be an overwhelming feeling of appreciation of the other person.

    I think wondering if you could become the monster is the first step in avoiding it. People who are convinced of their own righteousness won't notice the signs that it's starting to happen. They won't see the moral grey-zone they're stepping into.frank

    Maybe, but what I think worries me is that if you don't notice this kind of thing creep up on you, then maybe even recognising it as a problem isn't enough to prevent the evolution towards such ways of being.
    I remember once feeling really low, but nothing like a concentration camp victim, but this poem helped me. Maybe a little cheezy, but I think it's along the lines of what Frankl discovered:

    Out of the night that covers me,
    Black as the pit from pole to pole,
    I thank whatever gods may be
    For my unconquerable soul.

    In the fell clutch of circumstance
    I have not winced nor cried aloud.
    Under the bludgeonings of chance
    My head is bloody, but unbowed.

    Beyond this place of wrath and tears
    Looms but the Horror of the shade,
    And yet the menace of the years
    Finds and shall find me unafraid.

    It matters not how strait the gate,
    How charged with punishments the scroll,
    I am the master of my fate,
    I am the captain of my soul.
    frank

    Its not cheesy. I love poetry, and that certainly is a good one. Thank you for sharing it with me. The last stanza is especially great. The last two lines manage to pierce through in a very dramatic way instilling hope. I love how weird poems can be and how they have the power to effect us. Its a strange phenomena to observe. Especially considering that someone who doesn't understand English could look at the same arrangement of symbols and feel nothing but puzzlement from something that can be so effective to someone else.
  • Mr Phil O'Sophy
    1.3k
    I only recently realised that empathy is not about feeling how I would feel in your situation, it's feeling how you feel in your situation. I just thought I'd offer that, for those who (like me) mistook the exact meaning of the word. If you already knew, well, I'm sorry for wasting your time. :wink:Pattern-chaser

    Its interesting you say that, because I kind of allude to this problem in my post. Is it possible to do anything more than imagine yourself in such a position? Can you ever successfully understand what it feels like for someone else to experience something? This would require you to transcend your own subjectivity and to completely replace it with their own; which is itself so complex and so dependent upon countless things which other people can never get access to. I can't help but feel we have the ability to share abstract and common generalities. But each persons own subject is exclusively their own, and that empathy as you describe it is impossible to achieve. The only possible form of empathy is to place yourself in there shoes and imagine how you may feel under such circumstances, but that will always be a deficient form of empathy due to our finite understanding of other people. Which unfortunately is inevitable.
  • Mr Phil O'Sophy
    1.3k
    As a result of this I became frantically obsessed with Stoic thought and ethos. It was an attempt to desensitize myself from the whole experience. Around my 20's I picked up Frankel's book and was engrossed with the account of almost superhuman desire to help others however he could.Wallows

    Stoicism seems like a reasonable response to such horror.

    It is very easy to fall in despair over the tragedy of the Holocaust after visiting and then reading about the first hand experience of a survivor. But, the proper response in my opinion is gratitude. To be thankful that such atrocities will most likely never happen again.Wallows

    I'm not sure the world is such an optimistic place. I think seeing such things happen in the past only confirms to me that it is always possible for them to happen again in the future. For the aesthetics of a situation to be just different enough for the people who commit such crimes to be able to convince themselves that its not the same. That they are justified. I don't doubt that Nazi Germans had their own horror stories which instilled in them the same kind of disgust and horror we feel when we see their actions. I think they rationalised it in such a way as to make them blind to the similarities. Unfortunately, I'm not as optimistic about such things as I wish I could be. Pragmatism seems to pull me when making such observations.

    However if anyone has a good enough memory and follows some of my babble I think that I have become paranoid and suspicious of others. I am also extremely hypervigilant about other people due to this experience and insight of what people can do. I see no way out of this predicament and take medication to stabilize me.Wallows

    Because there is always a possibility that you may be dealing with monsters. I think the problem is that seeing such things has the potential to awaken the monster in ourselves. This can be a daunting thing to experience, and will likely make you realise that if little old me is capable of something so horrific, maybe everyone is. Everyone has the capacity to hurt someone else under such conditions, and so you put yourself at a distance to the rest of the world. I know I've done something similar. I've been hurt, and almost certainly done my own share of hurting. This combined with the awareness of atrocities like genocide etc, probably forces one to stay somewhat detached to everyone one meets. Or feel guilty or wary when one becomes too attached; always anticipating some form of pain as a result of the relationship.

    But then this worries me also because its possible that this very reaction to the world could also harbour the seeds to the monstrosities that can give rise to that very behaviour in the first place.
  • TheMadFool
    3.4k
    interesting comment. Although I find it strange when people talk as though the super rich don't have problems, which also shows a lack of empathy. The rich and the poor live in two different worlds, it makes sense that it would be hard for one to successfully transport themselves to the position of the other with the imagination alone.Mr Phil O'Sophy

    I guess what I'm saying is empathy is a posteriori and learning experiences are more if you're lower in the pecking order.
  • Mr Phil O'Sophy
    1.3k
    I guess what I'm saying is empathy is a posteriori and learning experiences are more if you're lower in the pecking order.TheMadFool

    Maybe. Although I'm not sure its as obvious as you make out. How does one quantify how many learning experiences those at the top of the pecking order have?
  • TheMadFool
    3.4k
    Well I'm not absolutely sure about this but the story of the Buddha seems to convey it much better.

    It's said that the Buddha's father (a king) put the Buddha in isolation, away from the pain and suffering of the common people so that he wouldn't lean towards religion. This failed, fortunately or not you decide, when one day the Buddha left his ''heavenly'' palace to mingle with his subjects who were Suffering.
  • Mr Phil O'Sophy
    1.3k
    It's said that the Buddha's father (a king) put the Buddha in isolation, away from the pain and suffering of the common people so that he wouldn't lean towards religion. This failed, fortunately or not you decide, when one day the Buddha left his ''heavenly'' palace to mingle with his subjects who were Suffering.TheMadFool

    But you also miss out the motivation for wishing to leave his "heavenly" palace in the first place. Was it not fuelled by a dissatisfaction with said palace? And was it not his experiencing the extremes of both pure abundance and absolute poverty that allowed him to become enlightened in the end?

    Were his conclusions not that ALL life is suffering- and just that of the poor?

    Does his (Prince Siddhārtha's) story not undermine your point rather than support it?
  • TheMadFool
    3.4k
    While Siddhartha was keptrestrained in his palace he was happy/content which are, to my understanding, states which kill motivation. Only when he saw the suffering outside his ivory tower did he feel the pain of others and that, it's said, motivated him.

    Motivation doesn't come from contentment/happiness. In fact these are end-states of motivation.

    Nevertheless we could say that he realized that worldly pleasures were just not it.

    You're putting the horse before the cart.
  • Terrapin Station
    11.3k
    Three points:

    One, I wouldn't say that empathy is something that one chooses to employ or not. You either have empathy or you do not. If you do, you can't turn it off. And if you do not, you can't turn it on by just saying, "Okay, I'm going to have empathy now."

    Two, empathy never equates to literally experiencing what another does. And it can't tell you what something is like prior to experiencing it yourself.

    Three, re your questions about your character, how have you behaved under pressure in the past--either peer pressure or pressure as a victim of something?
  • Pattern-chaser
    1.6k
    I only recently realised that empathy is not about feeling how I would feel in your situation, it's feeling how you feel in your situation. I just thought I'd offer that, for those who (like me) mistook the exact meaning of the word. If you already knew, well, I'm sorry for wasting your time. :wink: — Pattern-chaser


    Its interesting you say that, because I kind of allude to this problem in my post. Is it possible to do anything more than imagine yourself in such a position? Can you ever successfully understand what it feels like for someone else to experience something?
    Mr Phil O'Sophy

    In absolute terms, no, I don't think it's possible. But we humans are quite clever in some ways, and some of us have sufficient imagination that we can make a good guess about how someone else feels. But it must be a guess, in the end, as you imply.
  • Wallows
    8.7k
    Pragmatism seems to pull me when making such observations.Mr Phil O'Sophy

    How so?

    But then this worries me also because its possible that this very reaction to the world could also harbour the seeds to the monstrosities that can give rise to that very behaviour in the first place.Mr Phil O'Sophy

    I don't quite see the point here. Care to elaborate?
  • Wayfarer
    8k
    I think it's commendable that you allow yourself to feel it so deeply! A lot of people would turn away or repress such ideas because they're too challenging. So I think what you're feeling is perfectly natural, normal and even brave. So - good on you.

    My mother used to love the Frankl book and it was always around the house where I grew up. Later on philosophy forums, I often referred to this book (and also Erich Fromm's book Man For Himself) as pioneering works in what could be called 'secular spirituality' (although they describe themselves as humanistic psychology). But they deal with many of the profound themes found in some aspects of religious literature but outside the dogmatic framework of revealed religion.

    So my question is this, what use is this empathy if it only furthers my confusion?Mr Phil O'Sophy

    I delved into the Wiki page on Frankl and found this passage:

    After enduring the suffering in these camps, Frankl concluded that even in the most absurd, painful, and dehumanized situation, life has potential meaning and that, therefore, even suffering is meaningful. This conclusion served as a basis for his logotherapy and existential analysis, which Frankl had described before World War II. He said, "What is to give light must endure burning."

    I have to believe that this is ultimately a statement of faith - the sense that there remains an overall purpose - and that Frankl was ultimately a religious philosopher, although not overtly so.

    Indeed the article goes on to note that whilst after the war he married a Catholic, he remained an observant Jew. But of course, none of his work is overtly evangelical or proselytizing, because he's concerned with, shall we say, the inner meaning, not with the outer manifestation; it is obvious that many people who regard themselves as religious are also capable of dreadful violence and hypocrisy as European history and even current affairs so amply illustrates.

    But I also note from the article that his PhD thesis was called 'The Unconscious God', the notes on which say that 'Frankl advocates for the use of the Socratic dialogue or "self-discovery discourse" to be used with clients to get in touch with their "Noetic" (or spiritual) unconscious.' Which sounds very much like the self-awareness training that I went through with a group called Transformations earlier in life.

    Years ago, I had a friend who went through a crisis after reading Being and Time (of all things.) It was traumatic but ultimately cathartic. I think you're going through something similar. Stay with it!
  • frank
    2.9k
    Maybe, but what I think worries me is that if you don't notice this kind of thing creep up on you, then maybe even recognising it as a problem isn't enough to prevent the evolution towards such ways of being.Mr Phil O'Sophy

    I think you have a built-in alarm system which deploys paralytic agents if the shit hits the fan. You have to over-ride that system to become a monster. You have to ignore the alarms and force yourself to move when your nervous system is trying to shut you down. To live with yourself subsequently, you have to rationalize or just don't think at all. A monster is a person who has lived this way for so long that there's no way back (or so it seems).

    Knowing that you have the potential to become evil, you'll pick your ass up and flee when the alarm goes off. You won't hang around to see what happens next.
  • Grre
    111

    Knowing that you have the potential to become evil, you'll pick your ass up and flee when the alarm goes off. You won't hang around to see what happens next.

    How do you define evil?
  • frank
    2.9k
    How do you define evil?Grre

    I can think of a number of definitions. In the context of that quote it's being open to participating in a concentration camp on the oven-stuffing side of things (or something along those lines).
  • Possibility
    399
    Dexter Dias, in his book ‘The Ten Types of Human’, describes research demonstrating that, while visualising the suffering of others can cause us pain, exhaustion and even ‘burn-out’, when we adopt a mindset of wanting to approach or help them - to think towards them ‘compassionately’ - we trigger the reward mechanisms of the mind. “Adopting a compassionate approach does not deny the suffering of others, but activates a different neural network: the medial orbitofrontal cortex, the pregenual anterior cingulate cortex - and the ventral striatum.”

    Perhaps it’s not about empathising, but about removing the wall between yourself and those who suffer. You describe being terrified of the possibility that you might be subjected to the same level of suffering, and joyous at the lack of suffering you now experience. This is a common reaction to experiencing the suffering of others - it’s called pity.

    Compassion, on the other hand, is ‘suffering with’. When we respond with compassion, we let go of the perception of difference between ourselves and the person who suffers. Reminding ourselves of how fortunate we are to not be suffering like others seems like it would make us feel better when we encounter suffering, but it actually has the opposite effect. It is only when we suffer with them - when we overcome our terror of such an experience and allow ourselves to feel their pain instead of our own fear at the prospect of pain, to imagine standing there with them and holding their hand instead of being grateful that we’re not - only then can we feel rewarded by this deeper awareness.

    It’s very possible that you’ll dredge up the pain and suffering from your youth, and your terror may even relate to strategies you have in place to ensure you never feel that way again. That’s normal. We all have strategies to shield ourselves from pain, humiliation and loss. But that just goes to show that we all experience dreadful pain, humiliation and loss in our lives - even the wealthiest, the most popular or the most powerful. It’s not about comparing objective degrees of suffering - your own subjective experiences of suffering are not more trivial than Frankl’s at all. You already know what their tragedy and pain, death and grief, anger and hate, fear and trembling must have felt like because you’ve experienced similar emotions. I think if you have the courage to genuinely recall how that felt, you will find that you do understand more than you realise.
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