May 30, 1991


When a child dies it's a tragedy. When 100,000 children die, it's also a tragedy.

As sentient beings, it is possible for us to perceive the pain of other beings. This ability is not peculiar to people. Dogs and cats seem to be able to perceive the pain of others. I think that my cat believes that I am in pain when I sing. She comes to me and does the kinds of things that one would expect a mother cat to do for a kitten in pain.

What got me off on this subject was that when I went to the kitchen this morning, the counter was covered with ants. I proceeded to kill them, first slapping bunches of them with my palm, then squishing individual ants with my finger. As I was doing this, I thought about buying some poisoned bait. Maybe it would work this time. It hasn't worked for me in the past. That's the nice part about poison, or atom bombs; you don't have to see what you kill.

I just don't like killing things. It reminds me of my own vulnerability and mortality. And I empathize.

Ants are at the lower end of the forms of life that I consider as having something resembling feelings. I have no empathy with the yeast cells that die when I bake bread, nor the lactobacilli in the yogurt --they just multiply and metabolize. The ants, on the other hand, make choices. When my hand descends on them, they flee, some managing to hide from this horrible monster who is crushing everyone. Note my use of the word "everyONE". Ants can be individuals. They reproduce sexually and take care of their young. In the comic strip B.C., ants can even talk.

I know that if I keep empathizing with ants, I will go bananas. Maybe I should approach this problem from the other end, going from the person who is most important to me and on down the list. I'll start with me, who is the most important person to me. From there, I'll go to all of the important people in my life; my wife, children, other relatives, good friends and then to my neighbors, Already the intensity of my empathy is beginning to wane. I don't feel the same way about the mass of people in the cities; I feel less so about the people in Afghanistan, --and I don't feel any sympathy at all for the murderer Ramon Salcido.

When I saw my first dead body and assisted at my first autopsy, I was profoundly affected by the realization that these bodies were once living human beings. Before long, it ceased to bother me.

Could a physician keep his sanity if every dying child was his very own? Could a veterinarian survive if every dog was his own pet? A physician who has lost all of his empathy is probably not worth much as a physician; yet, he couldn't survive emotionally if everyone was as dear to him as his own family, or even close friends. People who deal with death and suffering become inured to it --they have to in order to preserve their own sanity. Could an undertaker keep his sanity for long if his sympathy was genuine?

Even a hardened medic, cop or fireman is profoundly touched on occasion. He can't let it last for long or his effectiveness at what he has to do becomes impaired. You can't think clearly when your emotions get in the way. The last thing that I want from emergency people is sympathy. I want competence! I can get sympathy from my friends and relatives later, when the emergency is over.

People who ask the question "how could he have done that terrible thing?" don't understand how people are able to suppress their feelings. It's possible to turn empathy on and off like a light. Some people do it more easily than others. Some turn it on and off depending on the object. I remember one of my kids had great empathy for mice, but she would torture her sister unmercifully.

The jokes that medical students enjoy would shock someone who was not a member of "the club".

There is an old joke: An undertaker says to his assistant "This is terrible! I dressed Mr. Smith in a blue suit and Mr.Jones in a black suit. It was supposed to be the other way around. The funerals start in five minutes and now our clients will all be unhappy."

"Not to worry," says his assistant, "I'll just switch heads!"

If you think that that's bad, you should hear some of the infantryman or medical school stories.

Disgusting? --not to an undertaker! Not to Gary Larson or Charles Adams.

What I'm driving at is that an event may be routine to one person and provoke feelings of extreme revulsion in another. Killing and gutting an animal is routine to one person and horrible to another.

Is the butcher a terrible person because he doesn't shudder at slicing a liver? Is a surgeon a terrible person because he doesn't feel anything when he cuts a patient open? Is a soldier a terrible person because he can kill "the enemy"? Is the person who executes a murderer a terrible person because of what he does?

To some people the answers to these questions would be an unequivocal "YES!" These people are disgusted with anyone who doesn't look at the world in the same way as they do.

Think, for a moment, what the world would be like if everyone felt that way? By the same token, think of what the world would be like if everyone killed anything, including people, with no feelings of empathy whatever?

Next column

Return to the Psychology Home Page

Return to Ira's Home Page