“Exceptionally smart” – Daily self-help readings are empty calories


[5-minute read]

I heard someone call another person “very smart” in an “exceptional relationship.” Perhaps what they meant here was “emotionally intelligent,” or, more simply, compassionate.

When I think of compassion, it may or may not involve empathy and/or sympathy. When I think of empathy, I think of a capability of putting oneself in the emotional shoes of another. And I think that’s ultimately impossible. No person has the psychological background of anyone else.

I encourage you to be very reflective about phrases like, “I’m like her/him… I know what you mean… Same for me…” Even when a clever meme or platitude speaks to two people, be reflective about the differences between every person.

I think pure empathy involves pure humility. When we consider that we can “know” anyone else’s feelings, words can be tragically deceptive.

I propose we are drawn into this trap of positive-think because we are conditioned in a materialist culture as consumers. Beyond fickle fashions and pop entertainment, even health trends arise and pass, like junk news that will never really affect us individually.

We consume words and ideas readily, instinctively, and voraciously. And that makes the authors and conductors of self-help programs very wealthy in our culture. One of the most common things said about such “help-cults” is that they give us a sense that we are not alone. I don’t see anything wrong with that, but a consumer mindset is not a deep or reflective one.

A great video or help article is a fast-food hamburger, consumed quickly to make our momentary hunger go away, yet doing little for our health. The calories of positive platitudes are sugary soda, ultimately empty energy, despite the effects in the moment.

Absolutely no one is like you. And you’re not like anybody else. This conflict of course hinges on the word “like.” But when we use it, we use it in a passing moment like sugary soda. Be reflective about considering yourself empathic. Everything you see and hear comes to you through the filter of your own experience, which differs from the source’s experiences much more deeply than we are conscious of.

Compassion may involve empathy, but is possible without it. “Compassion” comes from Latin meaning “to suffer with.” We can suffer “with” someone because suffering is a universal human experience. Be reflective here, still. Your suffering is like no one else’s.

The field of psychology often turns to extreme cases to elucidate it concepts. Depression is an extreme of sadness. Generalizing, depressed people hate attempts to talk them out of their depression. Why? Fast food and sugary sodas are empty calories for them. And antidepressants take weeks, if not months, to do their trick, when they work at all. Depression is not a “moment” of sadness. If you are to “suffer with” someone who is depressed, you must abandon the shallowness and haste of a consumer/material culture.

An exceptionally compassionate person may have little use for pop self-help or clever memes. Exceptional compassion is neither shallow nor fast. If you are shallow/fast in any of your relationships (parent/child, friend, brother/sister, lovers), you cannot “suffer with.” You do not have to have suffered “like” them. Instead, you have been reflective about the depths of your OWN suffering, so that when you “relate” to them, you are exceptionally conscious about the uniqueness of THEIR suffering.

With exceptional compassion, you do not quickly or shallowly dismiss expressions of their suffering when they are “relating to” you. You listen exceptionally well and very actively. The patience to do that is not cultivated by our fast-food and self-help cultures. It is quite countercultural to be reflective and “in touch” with your own suffering. We look down on people who express misery, and dismiss them often quoting a sugary platitude; at other times, we preach about why their “thinking” or identity memberships are wrong.

How can we expect to “suffer with” someone else if we do not “know” the depth of our own suffering? If we have been focused not on our suffering, but instead on how to shift our identity memberships like political parties, a different religion, affirmations that “I am one of these kinds of people, not that kind…” All distracting escapes.

It is consumerist to think that cultivating self-compassion can be independent from cultivating compassion for others. Or vice versa. It is consumerist to think that coming to love yourself is a prerequisite which happens before authentically loving others. These things happen simultaneously, overlapping.

If you read a flashy article or meme today and go no deeper or longer than affirming you comply with it – sharing it on Facebook, etc. – you’ll soon be hungry again when the empty calories evaporate. You cannot learn compassion by consuming, unless you are reflectively consuming your self and others at the same time. And that takes longer than devouring french fries.

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Neil D. 2021-07-21


Published by Neil Durso

Just another mid-lifer sharing the journey...

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