Choice, not nature, determines whether we are empathic

Q: (In high school), I befriended a new kid in school who seemed very alone and shy. He was off by himself a lot and seemed very nervous, but within a few weeks I had him jogging with my regular group in gym class, where he evidently made lots of new friends because I made an effort to pull him out of his shell. I am sure my own very-painful experiences transferring to a new school in the eighth grade made me emphathize with this poor kid and want to help him get acclimated. What bothers me is, 20 years later, I’m not like that at all now. To me, new people in my familiar environment can sink or swim on their own, and I don’t care either way. Do we necessarily lose our capacity to be nice to people and understand what they’re going through as we get older? How do we remember how it felt to be in pain, so that decades later we can remember to be nice to people? What gets in the way of that? I would like to be that generous kid again, but it’s not so easy to snap out of the way I see the world now. — N.W., location withheld

A: Back in college, a friend once said I was “naturally empathic.” I agreed, and a pleasing feeling settled through me, which I mistook for self-esteem. See, when you’re an ego-junkie, anything that buttresses your ego-image releases pleasing feelings into your brain stem. And back then, I was quite in love with my image of Really Nice Kind Empathic Guy.

Somewhere among the journeys of education and growing up, my understanding of empathy changed, not to mention my understanding of myself.

There is nothing natural about empathy. Natural means “according to nature,” and nature is about survival. If your No. 1 goal is survival, then empathy is contra-indicated. Meaning, empathy gets in the way of survival. Ask a cowbird. Or a Komodo dragon. Or a combat soldier. Or a 2-year-old whose parents have just come home with a new baby. Or Tom Brady, quarterback of the New England Patriots. (The guy’s an assassin.)

Now, if your No. 1 goal is becoming a human being, then survival is not such a big deal, because you know it’s possible to save your life yet lose your soul. So we bridle our instincts and begin the work of developing character and empathy. Quite different from learning to survive, some moral philosopher types call this “learning to die” — a dying to self.

I’m not naturally empathic. My personality type is naturally sentimental, which, on some days, does make me warm and cuddly to be around. Other times it makes me a dramatic, moody baby. Other times it makes me overly sensitive and critical. And still other times it makes me a boundary-less putz.

Empathy is something else.

You are sure your own “very painful experiences” made you empathize with the new, shy, lonely student, and you assume that if you remember that pain, then you will also resume being nice. I disagree, N.W., and here’s why:

Some people transform painful memories into empathy. Some. Other people use painful memories to justify withholding empathy. To enjoy withholding empathy (see sadism). Still other people manage their painful memories by inflicting painful memories upon the rest of us (see bullies, child abusers, serial killers, terrorists, etc.)

It’s not true that remembering and acknowledging pain leads necessarily and naturally to empathy. Just as likely for it to lead to vengeance.

I’m saying empathy is, in the end, a choice. We decide — to foster it, extend it, withhold it, ignore it, kill it. Our decision lies at the heart of any meaningful discussion of what makes us human.

N.W., you ask what gets in the way of empathy, then you say you’d “like to be that generous kid again, but it’s not so easy to snap out of the way (you) see the world now.”

There’s your answer. Something about the way you see the world has changed, and that impedes the human being you’d most enjoy being. How do you see the world, N.W.?

I have real empathy for how hard it is to “snap out of” unhappy world views. But right on the heels of my empathy is this brutal encouragement:

Snap out of it, N.W. Choose a view of the world that matches the beauty and the power of your empathy.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Clear View Counseling Wellness Center in Las Vegas and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Tuesdays and Sundays. Questions for the Asking Human Matters column or comments can be e-mailed to


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