Over the last few years, a question has been asked a lot: are people born without empathy and compassion, or are they raised that way?
Science has proven that diagnosed psychopaths and sociopaths have brain abnormalities that show the parts of their brains that govern empathy and compassion are non-functioning (link here). But for those without brain abnormalities, how are they without compassion or empathy?
My answer is I think it’s a personal choice. And I’m going to tell my mother’s story here to explain my answer.
My mother once said if she could summarize her childhood in one sentence it would be this: “God forbid you had an original thought in your head.” Nothing about empathy, compassion, or anything she was really taught to value or believe in other than rote Catholic dogma. She was to obey with total silence and submission the way she was being raised. And she was raised in what I would call a hellish environment- her father was an alcoholic and her mother was an extremely-conservative religious fanatic. My mother once told me one of her earliest memories was being thrown the stairs of the basement when she was four years old by her father in a drunken rage. (I didn’t ask for any more details or other times like that because I didn’t want to hear anymore, and she didn’t say anymore either though I have a feeling there were more stories like that.)
My mother would be the first to admit she was far from perfect. But not because she was humble, but because she had no self-confidence and no real self-esteem. Yet she didn’t raise me that way. She never put me down by telling me I was ugly, stupid, or going to hell just because I was female. In fact, when I was about eight years old we were at my grandmother’s house having lunch when my grandmother started in on me being overweight. For the first time in my life, I saw my mother completely lose her temper. She lit into my grandmother so hard my grandmother sat down and cried as she apologized over and over to me and my mother. I remember my mother saying, “You’re not going to do to my daughter what you did to me.” Because growing up my mother was told she was fat, ugly, and stupid though she wasn’t in any way, shape, or form.
My mother wasn’t very affectionate or very expressive emotionally with words. It was just something I accepted because that’s what I first remember. But I always felt like she believed in me and wanted me to be happy. I hated the fact when I started writing I put a bit of wedge between us because of that (that’s a story for another time). But she never stopped me from writing and though I never really showed her a lot of what I wrote, I wish I had.
I don’t believe my mother was raised to believe in, understand, or have compassion and empathy for herself or for others unless they fit an extremely rigid criteria for acceptance. I think she spent her adult life trying to overcome that and knew it was something she should try to overcome. When she did open up with people, they could be really awesome to her, or they could be total fucking shit-heads, too. Her trust issues and closed-off emotions have mirrored my own life and over the last few years I’ve gained a considerable understanding of her. Her silence has mirrored my own and it comes from similar places.
I believe she chose to do things differently as an adult. To try and overcome the rigid, horribly conservative ideology she was raised with, and to try and be a much-better mother than the one she had. I think she did a damn good job considering how much she had to overcome and deal with. I believe she had to fight a shit-ton of fear and conditioning to do things differently with me. I’m fucked up in a lot of respects but I’ve never dwelled too much on my looks or lost faith in myself. Like my mother, I stayed silent and took a lot of shit because I didn’t want to lose my shit and rage all over people.
So yes, I do believe empathy and compassion can be a choice people make. As to how and why they make that decision, that’s up to each person. But if you believe empathy and compassion are to be severely rationed, or barely felt, or only for those deserving few, may God have mercy on your soul because I sure as hell don’t. Disagreeing with someone over something simple like mayonnaise on a hamburger is one thing, disagreeing with them on something that involves compassion and empathy for someone suffering needlessly… there’s no need to attach love to hate because to me, hate is a lack of empathy and compassion towards suffering.
Though my mother never told me she loved me very often, her other words and actions said it for her. Her love didn’t hurt, her words never hurt, and I still miss her terribly almost eighteen years after her death. And I still love her, admire her, and respect more than anyone I’ve ever known because of the choices she made, and how damn hard she worked to overcome the way she was raised.