In the Japanese tradition of kintsugi, broken things are repaired with gold joinery. The repaired object is even lovelier than the original. The breakage and repair become an acknowledged part of the object’s history. The scars and wounds are cherished rather than disguised. What a beautiful reminder to harness the powers of darkness and light that exist within us and the world.
In the book, Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential—and Endangered, Perry states that “empathy underlies virtually everything that makes society work—like trust, altruism, collaboration, love, charity. Failure to empathize is a key part of most social problems—crime, violence, war, racism, child abuse, and inequity, to name just a few.”
Empathy is the first step to human connection — being able to see the world through another person’s eyes and feel what they feel. Compassion arises from empathy. Life is suffering. This is the first noble truth. Many are understandably afflicted with what is called empathic distress. Empathic distress is “a strong aversive and self-oriented response to the suffering of others, accompanied by the desire to withdraw from a situation in order to protect oneself from excessive negative feelings.” We feel so much pain but we are unable to do anything about it. We utilize an ancient survival mechanism and reflexively turn inward to protect ourselves.
Often over Haitian rum and coke, my mentor, the infamous and late Dr. Paul Farmer, and I would discuss empathy and the human condition. We wondered what it took for a human to develop empathy. Is our own suffering the catalyst? What is it about some of us who feel the pain of the world? His love of anthropology, social justice, and global health influence is much stronger now from the heavens above. He left the roadmap in our hearts. With these writings, I claim not to have the answers to elemental questions. I do hope, though, that we can practice the art of asking difficult questions. I hope just in the quest, we will grow closer together.
To further review one of the most pressing human dilemmas of our lifetime, I use the format of a hospital consultation note.
Nessa on temple-to-temple pilgrimage, rural Japan 2023
Reasons for consult
The epidemic of othering and isolation contributes to critically endangered relationships with self, others, and nature.
Source of history
Hand-collected bedside data, personal theories, world travel, conversations with Dr. Paul Farmer, direct firsthand study of blue zones and different cultures and systems around the world, stories of histories, different genres of books, click on underlined sections for hyperlinks
History of present illness
I can hear the weight of the world rupturing our fragile hearts, can you? I interrupt my regular programming due to the effects of a new destabilizing and dehumanizing war. Reactions, convictions, and opinions circulate due to the recent human bloodshed of holy warfare in the Middle East. This topic contains multitudes and contradictions. I address the concept of “othering” and how it relates to empathy and our human condition.
Othering negates our humanity as well as another person’s humanity. It is the antonym of belonging and empathy. Othering is believing that people who are different from you or your social group pose a threat to you and your way of life. It is attributing positive qualities to people who are like you and negative qualities to people who are not like you. Some algorithms of social media were designed to further fuel the “us vs. them” mentality.
Using differences as a way to exclude or cast others as outsiders cut us off from our innate human gifts of empathy. It harms all of us particularly those who are subliminally marginalized from dominant culture. The act of othering can be applied to ourselves through self-rejection.
It seems that rejecting our true selves is a prerequisite for belonging in our society. We believe that by striving for sameness, there is a sense of belonging in this harsh world. Humans grew conditioned to resist dark truths about our inner and outer worlds. We inherited false beliefs and set out on a path to seek pleasure and avoid pain at all costs.
We ditched our connection with the natural world and abandoned our uniqueness (both ingredients for humanness). In this “connected” world, we have become more automated, anxious, and lonely. We became less human. We forgot the laws of our nature. We did not comprehend the consequences of our amnesia until now- hopefully.
Our behaviors now face unintended consequences at the hands of trauma and uncontained human technology. We unpack what happened to us all while prepping for an artificial intelligence tsunami- another human invention. It begs the question: What role will AI play in our evolving human spiritual evolution? There are some indications that embodied AI will help us tap into our deeper consciousness and become more human.
Review of American systems: (i.e., food, health, tech industries)
Amazing progress for humanity, mass harm to people and the planet, generally not serving people, profit-based values, chronic lack of reciprocity, breeds divisions, causes stress and sickness directly or indirectly
Past medical/social and family histories
Agricultural revolution. Boundary wars. Eyeglass invention 1286. Printing press. Amazing progress and tech advancement. Poorly controlled pain. Disturbed emotional regulation skills. Spiritual and psychological stunting. Disconnection to the natural world. Destruction of biodiversity on earth. Empathy deficit disorder. Environmental calamities. Political divisiveness. Racial tensions. Global viral pandemics. The Renaissance. Gender wars. Religious warfare. The epidemic of weapons of misinformation. Drought. Invention of lightbulbs. Health care system. Superbug epidemics. Resilience of species. Industrial Revolution. Invention of penicillin 1928. Addiction and mental health crises. Ancestral trauma. Religious fanaticism. Hyperpolarized reactivity…
Vitals: Febrile, High pressure, Not alert and oriented, Eyes glossed over, Heartbroken, Shallow breathing, Tense inflamed muscles, Gait unbalanced, Distracted, Anxious, Traumatized
Results and diagnostics
Our human tendency to exhibit fear and engage in othering likely evolved as a way to improve group cohesion and minimize danger from outsiders. Back then, it was important for people to form close-knit groups and clearly define the boundaries between their allies and enemies.
This natural reflex plus unintended consequences of the digital world disconnects us from nature and our nature. What follows is a disruption of our physiology, natural reflexes, and brain circuitry. In modern times, outdated and inherited tools serve us no more and actually cause harm. What caused these age-old mechanisms to exhibit hyperreflexivity and go haywire?
Some theories are noted below:
There is a lot of uncertainty and we fear uncertainty. We evolved to unconsciously and reflexively protect ourselves in the face of threat (there are many invisible and visible terrorists). In our innate attempts for self-protection, we disconnect and retreat. However, our nervous systems get more anxious when we are not connected to a larger community. That is by design.
Unintended consequences of uncontained technology disturb our brain dopamine circuitry which further isolates and fosters addiction vulnerabilities. Unregulated social media algorithms and other mechanisms contribute to more isolation. Our ties with self, others, and nature are severed. An “Us vs. Them” mentality blossoms and thrives.
Our disconnection to each other and the natural world leads to further isolation, fear, and poor brain health. We fall into the grips of fear and addiction. We disassociate to seek pain control and avoid dark truths.
Isolation, fear, and attachments lead to othering, divisions, and war.
This leads us to further protect ourselves. We engage in even smaller nuclear family cocooning-like behavior and the cycle continues.
Our human reflexive behavior isolates us as a collective species all while facing global unprecedented threats to our survival.
Are we courageous enough to even ask critical questions from the throes of existential peril? Will great answers rise to meet great questions as the amazing Krista Tippet says? Can we stay grounded as we are catapulted into urgent unprecedented timescales? Will we buckle with fear and paralysis or will we learn from our history? Should we find the courage to talk about the good and bad of all things human? Can we be whole in our viewpoints? Can we act from a clear, poised, wise, and conscious mind space for this next extremely powerful technological wave? Can we dethrone our disturbed automated brains and lead with our hearts? Will we develop the awareness to plant seeds that could improve our brain health? Will we believe that we reap what we sow? Will self-reflection inquiries help us understand our patterns of othering and judgment? Do we understand that conflict is a great teacher? Before release, will we commit to addressing the risks and benefits of future human advancement, technologies, and interventions? Do we understand that liberal democracy is the same thing as civil human communication? Do we have the agency to allow the use of tech to minimize harm and elevate our humanity? Will the act of questing be enough to help us unearth healthier and new ways of thinking and being?
(There is no cookie-cutter solution here but here are some tips that I find valuable.)
Practice composting our dead flowers and rotted roots of our mental habit patterns in our brain gardens to make space for replanting.
Mulch, water and nourish new seeds of thought to protect from pests of invader thoughts.
Invitation to question how we show up in relationships (to self, others, earth) with newly discovered curiosity and gentleness.
Learn mindfulness strategies to understand when survival reflexes kick into gear.
Be present using all five senses when you show up for others and in outdoor spaces. Japanese mastery of all five senses is seen in the widespread practice of forest bathing.
Metabolize our pain and practice releasing it out of the storage of the tissues within our bodies.
Amplify the good of humanity without denying what is bad.
Foster genuine kinship and communion with people outside our safe circles.
Pay attention to how our misunderstandings, fears, fixed beliefs, attachments, and assumptions get in the way of meaningful connections.
Honor that rupture and repair is a natural method of healthy human interactions as opposed to denial of rupture or rupture on rupture.
Understand the true meaning of unconditional love through the action of loving all broken and rejected parts of ourselves and others.
Invite the practice and discipline to rise to our best humanity whatever that means for you.
Join this online citizen assembly to foster hope, do good, and be moved to act.
Nessa Meshkaty is an internal medicine, pediatrics, and infectious disease physician.