With over 1000 children currently being held in immigration detention in Australia, the campaigns by organisations like Chilout have raised the alarm again about the plight of young asylum seekers. Hunger strikes, self harm, violence, depression and despair continue to be a part of these children’s lives. When we know so much, why do we do so little? How do we allow ourselves to participate in the isolation and neglect of so many already vulnerable young people? Are we simply suffering a failure of empathy?
We are talking a lot lately about why we do the terrible things we do. We talk about a failure to protect or an absence of free will, we talk about a failure of empathy. We talk about how circumstances can lead to unspeakable acts of cruelty. I think many of us find the explanations for these acts of violence comforting. They put evil into its current accepted cultural place as a scientific question posed to explain human behaviour in its worst form.
The problem with thinking about this kind of cruelty as a neurological or empathic deficit is that in most explorations of the causes of evil, we leave ourselves out of the picture. It is not us, it is others. Those whose brains are wired without proper empathic pathways, or those who are in denial, or those brainwashed by a political circus about the necessity of protecting us from them. These people are the perpetrators, not us. We understandably watch shows like Go Back to Where You Came From with satisfaction, as those misguided ones are finally forced into a better understanding of the journeys of another.
But what of our own failures? If we have passed the empathy quiz with flying colours, if statistically those with so-called disorders that interfere with empathic understanding are in the minority, then how is it that so many children are still sitting behind bars for so long with our consent? Why is it so hard for those of us who do have a capacity for empathy, who do see ourselves as compassionate, to do more than watch the destruction of so many children’s lives? Perhaps it’s more complex and delicate than a failure of empathy. Perhaps we are functioning with an intentionally deaf heart.
One of the ways our hearts become deaf is through a careful training in selfishness. We often have serious trouble holding onto our own pain and worries while staying connected to other people whose lives we have an impact on. We can have difficulty multitasking, emotionally speaking. These are not diagnosable pathologies, they are behavioural choices. We say things like "it’s my turn" or "I can’t manage this now" or "I need to look after me" when we are faced with someone who is suffering because of our actions. As if we are not all connected. As if life gives us the chance to take turns.
Psychotherapy and the language of popular psychology do a lot to contribute to this fragmented view of interpersonal relationships. In the land of self help, we are encouraged to ask for what we want and what we need, and in the therapeutic setting, our other intimate connections are often ignored and devalued. It’s all about us. This often leads to a lessening of our ability to sustain intimate relationships rather than a deepening of empathy and connection. We make the assumption that if we are becoming more connected to ourselves, that this will automatically translate into more compassionate relationships with others. This is often not the case. We may have learned to open our hearts, but only to ourselves.
I used to believe in the trickle-down effect of empathy and compassion. When I started working with people as a therapist, I made the assumption, backed by a reasonable amount of evidence, that by developing more care and compassion for ourselves, we would become more caring towards those around us. Much of the time this was true. And some of the time it was not.
When I supervise other counsellors, I hear this story a lot. That someone is getting well, moving on to more freedom from depression or trauma, but that the therapist has fears for their client’s other family members, particularly their children. Something about this new found wellness is not being shared around. Connections are not being made.
When we do make connections between our needs and the needs of others, then we can begin to be responsible for our own actions. People have quite rightly connected the issue of live cattle export with that of the situation of asylum seekers. Not because we are the same as cows, but because the process of denying our cruelty to other beings is the same in both cases. We have a desire for something for ourselves. That desire may have many justifications and many good reasons for its fulfilment. We bolster those reasons and justifications and we devalue or minimise the pain that we are causing. We silence others by restricting access to an understanding of their suffering. We turn the conversation from an open discussion of experience into a competition for rights and privileges, and we give ourselves the megaphone. If we are honest, this is a way of behaving that is familiar to all of us.
Seeing and hearing the suffering of others, particularly when it is happening at our own hands, is painful. It creates a kind of emotional wound. It is through this emotional wound that light enters our hearts. This may sound esoteric, but it is not. Think of a time when you were really moved by someone else’s pain. Then think of a time when you were moved to change your behaviour in order to lessen that pain. Those experiences always come with a corresponding experience of suffering for us. We truly understand the wounding of another only when we can feel it ourselves. And when we feel it, it hurts. If we have been the cause, it hurts even more.
Most of us go to great lengths to avoid this kind of pain. It is the pain of responsibility. It’s the moment when we choose to experience our own shame. And if there is anything we defend ourselves strongly against it’s shame. On the other side of feeling the shame of allowing the detention of children lies action. And this action is not always going to be in our own interest or in the interest of individual children, but an action that takes into account our responsibility to all children.
Peter Singer wrote recently about the need for more elephant mothers than tiger mothers. Unlike tigers, elephants care for all the herd’s children. As we ponder the question of how we can allow over a thousand children to remain in detention in this country, we need to keep in mind that care and compassion are not simply individual attributes but also chosen social behaviours. An end to this cruelty may lie in our ability to move the focus from ourselves and onto the herd. This will require the heart of an elephant.
Why does the news make the news? Why do certain stories gain such traction? Therapy For News Junkies is a regular NM column which looks at why audiences react so vehemently to particular issues. Zoe Krupka is a psychotherapist who uses her knowledge about how we react as individuals to better understand collective responses to the events of the day.
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