Over coffee you confide to your friend, "I'm in debt! I got dumped! My dog died!" The words bounce off her taut forehead and her wrinkle-free face with no effect -- or affect.
Her emotions are frozen, much like the tiny facial muscles temporarily paralysed by the botulism toxins that scientists now believe not only paralyze muscles but also the innate human response to another's suffering: empathy.
A study published last month in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science found that someone with a permanent poker face caused by Botox can't mirror a joyful smile or a furrowed brow -- and this mimicry, research suggests, is essential to our capacity to empathize with others.
A frozen face begets frozen feelings.
This got us thinking about empathy. We can't afford to forfeit it for taut skin. It takes about 40 muscles to frown -- and we'd like to preserve every one of them.
Cambridge University psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen writes that empathy is already in short supply in this warring world. His new book, "Zero Degrees of Empathy," offers "a new theory of human cruelty," one that rejects evil as an explanation for murder, suffering and malice. Blaming evil, he reasons, is like blaming a force beyond human control.
Instead, he says, "empathy erosion" is at the root of much of our destructive and hurtful behaviour. Those whom many of us call "evil" or, to a lesser degree, "selfish" just can't put themselves inside the consciousness of another person -- a necessary ingredient for empathy.
Blaming empathy erosion, Baron-Cohen's alternative explanation, is slightly more uplifting, because an exercise in empathy can be a form of rehab for people suffering from severe cases of insensitivity. (Good news: the person who sidelined you to jump on the subway this morning is not doomed).
Whether or not you agree with Baron-Cohen's theory, it's interesting to imagine that there's no evil in the world, and instead, that many of us are just suffering from empathy malfunction.
You don't have to be a Cambridge psychologist to observe those people out for themselves instead of each other. It's the shopper who lets the door slam in your face, the motorist who almost runs you over en route to her Botox appointment or the boss who won't give you the day off to tend to an ill family member. It's a vicious cycle. But there's also an empathetic cycle; small acts of kindness spread good feelings.
Just last week, Craig was in a slow-moving line at a fast food joint in Los Angeles. At the register, a visibly flustered woman was trying to buy herself a $6 lunch, but her bank card was rejected. Ditto her credit card. No one in the long line stepped up to help, until Craig handed over $2, the outstanding balance. He felt her embarrassment, realizing we all have bad days.
It's hardly praiseworthy. But why were none of the other patrons willing to sacrifice the cost of adding a drink combo to their meal purchase to help this woman?
We live in an age that's so me-focused. We feel pressure to justify ourselves, our actions, careers, values and choices, and the "me" overwhelms everything else.
Schadenfreude, laughing at the misfortunes of others, fuels pop culture. We watch the cast of "Jersey Shore" get drunk, brawl and break up for our own amusement. We swap the deranged sayings of Charlie Sheen as if they were words to live by instead of ramblings from a seriously disturbed individual.
Baron-Cohen suggests that our capacity for empathy is both genetic and environmental. Either way, we figure we're meant to be empathetic creatures. Even chimps -- humans' closest cousins -- show empathy. Scientists just discovered that chimpanzees yawn more after watching their chimp buddies yawn, an outward expression of empathy.
We don't buy the idea that that life is nasty, brutish and short. It's not just laws and convention that stop us from intentionally hurting people. We can choose how we treat others; empathy prevents us from committing truly heinous acts, and it can work just as well preventing thoughtless acts.
Start your own empathy rehab by holding doors open, dropping change into soiled coffee cups, adding quarters to random parking meters, giving someone a genuine compliment, offering your seat to an elderly person or paying for someone's fried chicken lunch. Trust us: it'll be more effective than a cosmetic injection.
Channel your inner chimp and lay off the Botox -- because empathy is beautiful.
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