“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
I am going to punch you in the face.
Well, no, actually I am not going to do that.
But what would you do if I did?
Would you hit me back? Would you run?
You would have to do something, right?
Perhaps the one trait that we, as men, are very strongly discouraged to cultivate in ourselves is the skill and practice of empathy.
When you look at some of the most remarkable men in the world, like the Dalai Lama, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., or even some successful self-help icons like Tony Robbins, Tim Ferriss, and Seth Godin, or top movie stars like Dwayne Johnson, or Jim Carrey, or Steve Carrell, there is a key trait that seems to make them stand out from their peers, and I think that trait is their ability to empathize with others.
What really interests me as a man is our early boyhood training in anti-empathy.
We’re taught to “man up” and “take it like a man.”
We are told that being insensitive is a manly trait, when in fact it is our very sensitivity and empathetic response to our surroundings that allows us to improve as men.
Experiencing the world intensely through our senses is a very different thing than being weak.
When men say “be a man” what they actually mean is “don’t be weak.” But empathy is not a weakness.
I know a lot of great moms and dads out there who give their male children great upbringings. These parents have no problem in helping a young boy explore his empathetic responses to life. Sensitivity in their households is not a bad word.
But do you believe that this is the environment in which the majority of boys grow up?
It is not. Far from it.
More than 70% of Americans agreed in 2012 that, “it is sometimes necessary to discipline a child with a good, hard spanking.”[ii]
Children spanked frequently and/or severely are at higher risk for mental health problems, ranging from anxiety and depression to alcohol and drug abuse, according to some research studies. Children whose parents hit them regularly may also develop more distant parent-child relationships later on.
There is also robust evidence of an increased incidence of aggression among children who are regularly spanked. A 2002 meta-analysis of 27 studies across time periods, countries, and ages found a persistent association: children who are spanked regularly are more likely to be aggressive, both as a child and as an adult. Many parents spank their children to put an immediate stop to bad behavior (e.g., shoving another child, reaching for a hot stove, etc.). Being on the receiving end, children may learn to associate violence with power or getting one’s own way. Indeed, much of the aggressive behavior attributed to children who were spanked differentially tends to correspond to interactions where violence is used to exert power over another person — bullying, partner abuse, and so on.
Hitting a kid doesn’t do anything constructive. In fact, it does the opposite — it break them down. It causes them to lash out.
More than 1 in 3 students had been in a physical fight;
About 1 in 7 had been in a physical fight on school property; and
About 1 in 9 of those who fought had been hurt badly enough to need medical treatment.1
Physical fights typically involve two or more teens who have chosen to use physical force to resolve a conflict or argument. Because physical fights are so common, many people dismiss them as a normal part of growing up. While it is true that teens (and teenage boys in particular) have always engaged in fistfights, today, many teens carry deadly weapons. In 1999, more than 1 in 4 male high school students said they had carried a weapon in the past month,2 and about 1 in 11 reported carrying a gun.3
Male teens are much more likely to fight than females.
In a recent national survey, 44 percent of male high school students versus 27 percent of female students said they had been in a fight in the past year.6
20 years ago violence in schools was beginning to become a problem. Now, we have an epidemic.
As of 2015, nearly one in four high school males reported carrying weapons (such as a gun, knife, or club) on at least one occasion in the past 30 days.
Some would point out that in the past parents, especially fathers, were far more violent toward their children. Perhaps that is technically true, but we all live in a very different set of circumstances now.
“But I wasn’t chewing any gum,” the 10-year-old begged, insisting he was innocent.
“You’re a liar!” the adult reportedly responded. “Now you’re really going to get it because you keep lying to me.”
In a scene more reminiscent of a Victorian orphanage or an 1800s one-room schoolhouse, the wooden paddle allegedly hit the child’s backside about a dozen times, each smack accompanied by wailing cries. The door to the hallway was only partially closed, allowing Liz Dwyer, a student at the time who says she witnessed the incident at Muessel Elementary School in South Bend, Indiana, to clearly hear the screams of the third-grader in the music room. Dwyer says she’s still haunted by the memory of corporal punishment over 30 years later. “I knew he didn’t have any gum,” she said, “but I was too afraid to speak up.”
Dwyer, the culture and education editor at the digital advocacy magazine TakePart, distinctly recalls “the swoosh of the paddle, the sound it made as it connected with [his] body… the sobs for mercy.” And she remembers the arbitrary and discriminatory nature of the punishment. “The reasons a kid could be yanked out of class… were inconsistent and petty,” she said. “If our [music] teacher thought a boy — and it seemed to always be a boy — was singing [a song] too loudly… if he seemed bored while he clanged the shiny metal triangle, or if he appeared a tad too enthusiastic while slapping a tambourine, the paddle would come out.”
It is a simple psychological fact — when a child is subject to violence, he or she learns that violence is the answer to a problem, and that anger is a pathway toward conflict resolution, which comes in the aftermath of violence.
Some boys internalize that violence and become addicted to substances, sensations, successes, or distractions. Others externalize it and hurt other people, hate other ethnic groups, and make other people suffer in one way or another.
The simple answer to this problem is that we have to stop hurting each other.
That is easier said than done.
This year alone we saw an egregious example of how abused and fearful children who have grown up to be adults can lash out at others. Our government enacted it’s own hatred and violence upon numerous families in the name of “MAGA”. These families were seeking asylum with their children in the USA, and over 2,000 children were separated from their mothers and fathers in multiple instances of abuse. These children were, and are, treated like animals, and many of them are forever orphaned as their own parents are sent away.
“Freeloaders! Go back to where you came from! Make America Great Again!” All of these proclamations come from a place of fear, from a fearful inner child, expressed as hate and disgust toward the Other.
America is a process, it is not a thing. It is a beautiful democratic experiment, not a hotel in the Bronx. The immigrants who are seeking peace from violence are an integral part of this process, and the authorities who torture them by splitting up families are seeking to assuage their fear of the Other, which stems from their own experience with violence in the past.
And thus the cycle begins again. The immigrant orphans now have just cause to fear, and the fear may fester and turn to hate, and hate may turn to violence.
Fear, hatred, and violence all thrive in the absence of empathy. In fact, fear creates fear. Luckily, empathy creates empathy.
How many violent mass murders have we experience in the US in 2017 alone? From various sources I count more mass shootings than the number of days that have passed. School shootings are now blase, and the general populace is starting to have trouble differentiating between them.
“Is that the one with the little kids?”
The world has gone mad. The strong temptation is to hide away, behind the walls of our fortresses, and never venture out again.
But these kids, the ones that have been directly affected by the violence in their schools, are beginning to speak out.
Guess who tells them to “Shut up and fuck off”? It is always the the ones who have the most internalized trauma of some sort. Out of this personal trauma comes hateful words and fear.
We are all getting a little or a lot angry. We are all traumatized by the reality of the violence that goes on in the world. And we all do need to acknowledge that that and try to understand those feelings.
If we are feeling a deep sadness, it’s okay for us to speak out on that. We don’t need to turn that sadness into anger.
And that is where it all starts.
We have to stop turning our pain into violence. We need to start cultivating empathy in order to maintain peace.
Some of us internalize the pain and hurt ourselves, some externalize it and hurt others. Some of us decide to open up and began to work through our own shit, and others hold onto their pain like it’s the only thing that makes them real.
I think the only real way forward is to open up and let yourself feel what others feel. It may be overwhelming at first, but then our humanity floods back in, and we can finally began to connect
My sensitivity is my strength…When somebody tells me to ‘Stop being so sensitive!’ I feel a bit like a nose being lectured by a fart.
I could write a lot about this subject. But in the end, I think what is important is not necessarily identifying the problems and the sources of pain and violence — there is an endless fountain of suffering in the world — but to act on our empathy on a daily basis.
Overly sensitive people tend to rebel in various ways in their youth. I became aware of my difference to other people at a young age, when I began to be attacked for being different. I never understood why I felt so different until I understood that I had empathetic capabilities that were more advanced than my peers.
Is that because of nurture or nature, I’ve always wondered, and I’ve never really figured that out.
But I know that the part of me that feels intensely is the the part of me that is most unique, what some call my soul. And my sensitivity is my superpower, when you get right down to it.
Why are we still judging anybody based on the color of their skin, who they love, what they pray to, what their genitals look like, or where they come from? Why?
The only reason that makes any sense to me is that once upon a time a boy got punched in the face. It doesn’t matter who did the punching. That punch was internalized.
And anybody who was not like that boy— anybody who was gay, black, transgender, sensitive, artistic, Muslim — became his opponent. Why? Because he needed to feel in control of something, even if it was only his anger and hate.