Saturday, July 11, 2015

The empathy gene

"The biggest divide in this country is not between Democrats and Republicans. It’s between people who care and people who don’t care.” — Rachel Maddow

I HAVE a friend who is single-handedly taking care of his wife who suffers from Alzheimer's disease. But their's is not the usual story; Janet has early-onset Alzheimer's

Mark was 34 and Janet 40 when they were married. Less than 10 years later Janet began to be symptomatic. A second marriage for both, Janet is as Mark says, "the love of my life." 

Mark is now into his sixth year as his wife's sole caretaker. Another person might resent having spent so many of what otherwise would probably have been some of his most active and productive years — as well as virtually every financial asset he'd accumulated from the successful business he built and sold — as a caretaker. But that's not who Mark is. Whenever I've praised him for his patient devotion, his reply is always, "It's my privilege to be the one who takes care of her."

Mark and I became friends through Facebook, and while he was struggling to cope during a recent particularly rough patch, I called him to visit for a little bit — an offering of a mental margarita, if you will. He was much more grateful than my small gesture warranted. It's these little gifts of friendship and concern that he gets almost entirely from his virtual village, he said, that help keep him going.

When Janet was first diagnosed, he fielded a flood of calls, notes and emails from family and friends, but that has long since all fallen away. He doesn't hear from relatives and IRL friends. Neighbors don't call or stop by. No one pops in with a casserole or an offer to spell Mark for an hour or two.

At Easter there was a neighborhood potluck to which Mark and Janet were invited at the last minute and only then because a "friend" accidentally let the news of the get-together slip when he bumped into Mark in town. 

Although disappointed to receive an awkward, obligatory invitation, Mark was looking forward to the possibility of going and hoped Janet would be doing well enough that they could. When the day came, however, Janet was having hallucinations, and Mark called with his regrets. 

What really hurt Mark was that neither the hosts nor any of the guests who all know Mark and Janet's situation thought to take the simple step of packaging up leftovers for them. Mark and Janet used to attend this neighborhood event year after year before she became too ill, and there is always a copious amount of food left over, he said. It would have meant so much to him to have a meal he didn't have to prepare.

No one considered what Easter would be like at Mark's house where there would be no special meal. As exhausted as Mark was, he was hard pressed to cook any meal at all for the two of them.

Mark's theory is that it makes those who knew Janet as she used to be — vibrant, witty, full of life — too embarrassed and uncomfortable to come 'round or even talk about what's happening. There will be, after all, no happy ending to this story. Or maybe it reminds them in too vivid a way that nobody, as the saying goes, gets out of here alive — and of just how brutal and protracted our departure can be. Whatever the psychology is behind their desertion, his relatives and former friends have fled, and Mark's source of empathy and kindness has become his collection of online friends, people who for the most part he's never met. 

I haven't been able to stop thinking about Mark and Janet and, more particularly, their thoughtless neighbors who didn't see fit to extend the small kindness of sharing leftovers with two of their own. So I went to Trader Joe's and picked out a little selection of items for lunch to send them and called Mark to tell him that despite the fact that he and Janet live 1300 miles away, we would be neighbors. It was a lucky guess on my part. It turns out that before Mark and Janet moved to Montana, they lived in California, and they frequented Trade Joe's on a regular basis. It was a favorite.

I told him, "It's just lunch," but he said, "You have no idea how much it means to me just to be thought of. You must have the empathy gene."

Below is an article I came across in The New York Times exploring human empathy. (BTW, in case you ever had the gut sense that powerful people are less empathetic, you're right! They actually are.)

Empathy Is Actually a Choice

By Daryl Cameron, Michael Inzlicht and William Cunningham

July 10, 2015

ONE death is a tragedy. One million is a statistic.

You’ve probably heard this saying before. It is thought to capture an unfortunate truth about empathy: While a single crying child or injured puppy tugs at our heartstrings, large numbers of suffering people, as in epidemics, earthquakes and genocides, do not inspire a comparable reaction.

Studies have repeatedly confirmed this. It’s a troubling finding because, as recent research has demonstrated, many of us believe that if more lives are at stake, we will — and should — feel more empathy (i.e., vicariously share others’ experiences) and do more to help.

Not only does empathy seem to fail when it is needed most, but it also appears to play favorites. Recent studies have shown that our empathy is dampened or constrained when it comes to people of different races, nationalities or creeds. These results suggest that empathy is a limited resource, like a fossil fuel, which we cannot extend indefinitely or to everyone.

What, then, is the relationship between empathy and morality? Traditionally, empathy has been seen as a force for moral good, motivating virtuous deeds. Yet a growing chorus of critics, inspired by findings like those above, depict empathy as a source of moral failure. In the words of the psychologist Paul Bloom, empathy is a “parochial, narrow-minded” emotion — one that “will have to yield to reason if humanity is to survive.”

We disagree.

Click here to read the entire article.


  1. Thank you friend. You seem to remember every little detail of our story as accurately as I live it day after day.

  2. This feels really familiar. Just as I was about to ask if you had written about it before, I recognized that the date is one I would have read but for some reason failed to comment. I wish Mark and Janet some friends who at least see fit to send a card now and then or pop in with a casserole or take out. Unfortunately, it's a fact of our generation that most of us will be in his shoes if we aren't already. Tonight some friends got out for a couple of hours to listen to music in the park with us. They have her mom and a cousin to care for, so her retirement turned into full time care giving before she even had a chance to enjoy it. I get that empathy is the point and that we can develop it - increasing it. I'm just saying we all NEED to because there are folks whose lives could be improved by the application of it. Thanks for this Kelly - another beautiful article.