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When I don’t feel your pain

By Mike Ruffin Have you taken acetaminophen lately? It’s not surprising if you have, since 23% of Americans do so regularly. You may take it without realizing it, since it’s an ingredient in more than 600 medicines. I ask because I’m concerned about the seeming lack of empathy I perceive in many of us. Empathy is the ability to understand and share in someone else’s pain because you can imagine what their experience is like. Evidently, acetaminophen may be partly to blame for our failure to empathize. The results of a recent study conducted at Ohio State University seem to indicate that acetaminophen may reduce our ability to feel empathy. Basically, the study seems to show that people who take the drug have a reduced capacity to relate to someone else’s pain. Previous studies have shown that our experience of our own pain and of someone else’s pain affects the same part of the brain. So, if acetaminophen reduces our brain’s perception of our own pain, it stands to reason that it would also reduce our perception of someone else’s pain. Acetaminophen isn’t the only culprit, though. Other factors can reduce our capacity for empathy. I’d like to mention only one possibility from a very long list: our unwillingness even to acknowledge, much less imagine, someone else’s experience. There are about 7.3 billion people in the world, a number that’s expected to hit 9 billion by 2050. There are 162 nations on the planet. While no one can say for sure how many ethnic groups there are, a good estimate is 15 to 20 thousand. There are around 7,000 languages spoken around the world. There are just too many people, too many cultures, too many religions, too many histories and too many experiences for us to know about, much less comprehend, them all. On top of that, we all have the same handicap: we can have only our experience, and so we tend to see things only from our perspective. That’s just the way it is. Problems develop, though, when we let ourselves think, talk and act as if our experience is normative­ that all other experiences can and should be judged by it. Take me, for example. I’m male, white, heterosexual, married, middle class, American, Southern, Christian and educated. Everybody, thank God, isn’t the same as me. I mean, every other person who shares all of those characteristics with me has different life experiences than I do. There are different kinds of Christians and different kinds of education, for example. So it’s not particularly surprising that I can neither relate to nor understand the experiences of someone who is black or Asian or Latino or female or single or homosexual or transgender or Iranian or single or poor or rich or Northern or Muslim or uneducated. We’re just different. That’s just the way it is. Again, the problem comes when we judge all other experiences by ours. The problem becomes serious when we refuse even to acknowledge the validity of someone else’s experience. How can we move toward empathizing with their pain if we can’t even let ourselves admit that their experiences are just as real and legitimate – that they are just as human – as ours are? We could use a little more empathy in this old world. I’m not saying that we should stop taking acetaminophen. And I’m not saying that we should stop being who we are – as if that’s even possible. What I am saying is that we can better empathize with each other when we’re willing to see the validity of each other’s experience. You’re not me and I’m not you. But we are us ‘¦ Mike Ruffin is a Barnesville native. Somewhere along the way, he became an optimist, and he still believes we can make it if we try. You can visit him anytime at MichaelRuffin. com. His new book, Fifty-Seven: A Memoir of Death & Life, will be published later this year.

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