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Empathy and the True Believer

Empathy is going to do what it always reliably does: listen. So when empathy encounters the True Believer, empathy is going provide a gracious listening. 

As empathic listeners, we start with an extreme case. We are listening to a narrative about how the space ship was supposed to arrive from Alpha Centauri to take the members of the group (or cult) to the Promised Land; but it did not arrive. As empathic listeners, we find ourselves listening to a narrative about how an election was stolen. However, so far, the recounts fail to surface the theft. We are listening to a narrative of how some racial or ethnic minority stabbed the nation of citizens in the back; but the supposed perpetrators are noticeably without power or influence consistent with such an action or result. We are listening to a discourse about how prayer makes us whole and faith fulfills our aspirations; but we experience prayers as unanswered (as if no one was listening) and faith as indistinguishable from the outcome of our own persistent efforts in a probabilistic universe of random events. 

It does no good – it makes no difference – to take the belief system away from the True Believer. No marshaling of facts, no amount of logical argument, whether overwhelming or debatable, makes a difference. The True Believer is not engaging  any alternative point of view. Why not? 

The answer is direct: the belief system is what is holding the True Believer’s self, his or her personality, together. Take away the belief system and the personality falls apart. The person experiences emotional fragmentation, anxiety, and stress. This is why the True Believer becomes angry, starts to shout, escalates to rage in the face of countervailing arguments and facts. He experiences a narcissistic injury that threatens the coherence of his personality. 

The work of empathy in the face of the True Believer consists in standing for an inquiry into one’s belief systems. If empathy is a belief system, then we inquire into that system too. Such a belief system – if we may tentatively call it that – opens out into a space of acceptance and tolerance. It is a belief system which is skeptical about belief systems. It is a belief system committed to inquiry. Key term: inquiry. Never stop questioning. Never stop listening. 

Empathy creates a commitment to acceptance, toleration, and the ability to walk in the other person’s shoes. The True Believer is committed to a belief system, conformity, and marching together in step. 

Since it would require an entire book to define The True Believer, I will just give a definition by example. It is a high probability you are dealing with a True Believer when, in the face of a setback to the Belief System (whether religion, political party, social movement, or spiritual cause) the adherent to the cause Doubles Down. Key term: double down. 

For example, the end of the world does not arrive on the predicted date as predicted by the leader, the prophet, and the belief system. The space ship does not arrive from Alpha Centauri to take the True Believers to the promised land. You know the authentic True Believer when he experiences a set back to the movement, cause, and belief system to which he is devoted. Do the adherents of the belief system say: Oops, we might have overlooked something – some facts or alternative point of view; we might have made a miscalculation; or some of our assumptions require improvement? We might have made a mistake or two or overlooked a crucial detail? No! The True Believers double down. 

What went wrong? Sometimes the fault is internal. The faith of the True Believer was not strong enough. We must confess our sins. Preferably, we must confess our failings in a public show trial and be martyred. However, preferably the fault is external. Outside agitators, the unwashed masses from a foreign land, a racial or ethnic minority stabbed us in the back. 

Alternative facts, dangerous half-truths, and total nonsense are marshaled to account for the setback. “We was robbed!”  “Betrayal!” The vote count shows we lost by five million votes; but those votes were invalid votes, stolen votes, non-existent votes, and, therefore, irrelevant. Anything except the simple fact, we screwed up (but how?) or our game plan did not survive the encounter with the real world situation at a given time and place. Thus, the definition by example of the True Believer.

You, dear reader, can see where this is going. How does empathy or an empathic person engage with the True Believer? If the True Believer takes a position that rules out an inquiry into the advantages and disadvantages, the benefits and draw backs, of one’s own or competing belief systems, then the conversation does not get going. How to get the conversation going?

Rarely is empathy irrelevant but there are some situations in which empathy is less (or more) useful than other situations. For example, if someone is throwing rocks, then understanding the rock throwing person is expressing his sense of grievance in a bad way is less useful than stopping them from throwing rocks. 

Things such as self-defense, security, safety, basic well being are necessary aspects of the situation for empathy to make a difference. The True Believer is different from the bully, the psychopathic, the psychotic, or the fanatic, whether religious or political – but sometimes not that much different. 

The guidance from empathy in the face of bullying, psychopathic manipulations, or rock throwing is to set limits. Likewise, with the True Believer. Key term: limit setting. Empathy is useful in deescalating aggression, hostility, violence, and other forms of acting out; but once the first rock flies through the air, the situation is no longer one about empathy. It is about reestablishing safety, security, and a space of acceptance and tolerance where empathy can actually make a difference. As noted, empathy is going to give the True Believer a good listening.

It is sometimes said that there is a little bit of larceny in all of us. That little bit of larceny is useful in empathizing with the bad boy or girl. That little bit of larceny is useful in figuring out what might have motivated a given individual’s antisocial behavior. 

The same idea applies to empathizing with the True Believer. If you can relate to your own inner True Believer, then you might be able to engage with the True Believer’s in the community to understand what makes them tick. 

The challenge is that in relating to your inner True Believer, you are not really relating to an individual, you are relating to a belief system, some of the principles of which may be useful and sensible, others less so.

The secret of empathic relating to the True Believer is not agreeing or disagreeing, undercutting or side-stepping, antidepressants or antipsychotics, the secret is the relationship the empath has to his own inner True Believer. If you can find an area in which you really are a True Believer, then it is likely you can relate to a True Believer in a conversation for possibility in which both individuals are left in integrity, whole and complete. 

How shall I put it delicately? An authentic patriot can be willing to die for his [or her] country and yet not be a True Believer. But can he be willing to kill for his country without being a true believer? This is hard to finesse. When challenged, True Believers escalate in the direction of a fanaticism of hostility and aggression, even if they stop short of the death penalty. 

I hasten to add that national defense is a valid function of the national armed forces, and I honor service men and women, first responders, and those committed to homeland security. Following orders to shoot the enemy on command of the commanding officer does not make one a True Believer. But it does make one a cog in a mechanism of defense, which in most cases requires a therapeutic recovery process to regain lost aspects of one’s humanity upon discharge from the armed forces. 

Is the True Believer like the bully, the psychopath, or the perpetrator of domestic violence, for whom the more expanded empathy you give the person, the more ways the True Believer has to manipulate and abuse you?  Some of the best parts of empathy – reduced stress, emotional regulation, self soothing – do not get deployed because empathy must put all its energy into setting limits to the boundary issues and violations. 

The fall back position of empathy – which paradoxically ceases to be empathy – is to have compassion or even pity for the misguided soul who needs such a delusional system to feel or maintain a grip on reality. Absent successful boundary setting using empathy, the recommendation is to dial 911 and summon emergency services to restore order and tranquility (a desperate measure indeed, given that the police may arrive with guns out – how is that serving and protecting?).

I anticipate an objection at this point. The devil’s advocate says: But, Lou, are you not a True Believer in empathy? The answer is direct: No. I am committed to undertaking an inquiry into empathy. Empathy has strengths and weaknesses. It can misfire or it can succeed. It is susceptible of improvement in many situations. I hasten to add that I am also committed to using empathy to benefit people and organizations in the community. I am a shameless and unabashed promoter of the value of empathy. I will go to the matt on this one. 

However, even if you do not believe in empathy, are persuaded that empathy is over-rated, or prefer rational compassion, I will still try my best to give you a good listening and to use empathy to make a positive difference in our relationship. No doubt more needs to be written about empathy and the True Believer. The politics of empathy is deep and complicated. There is a lot at stake. Literally.

This may indeed be a “love the sinner but hate the sin” moment. But such a moment is the positive part of empathic spirituality without which fanaticism causes spirituality to go off the rails and burn people at the stake. So if you find yourself or your neighbor gathering kindling for a bonfire, make sure it is to roast one’s own idols, pretensions, and vanities, not your neighbor. 

Bibliography

Eric Hoffer. (1951). The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. New York: Harper Perennial.

(c) Lou Agosta PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project