January 15, 2014 Politics Can You Feel My Pain? After reading two articles recently, one after another, I had an epiphany that made each one easier to understand. The first was the transcript and recording of Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell’s radio interview with Lars Larson. In it he responds with laughter to Larson’s question as to whether he would vote no to extend unemployment benefits to the 1.3 million long term unemployed and their families. According to Politico, “Some who lost their benefits say they’ll begin an early and unplanned retirement. Others will pile on debt to pay for school and an eventual second career. Many will likely lean on family, friends and other government programs to get by.” In other words, people who lost their jobs because of the sorry economy and who have been actively looking for new jobs now face a dire situation, and Mitch McConnell finds this funny. For those who agree with him and who feel as if the unemployed are somehow lazy and/or undeserving, his reaction may be apropros. But for those who disagree, his behavior shows a lack of compassion. In the least it comes off as crass. Which begs the question: how can some people show a complete lack of empathy for their fellow human beings? This question does not just crop up with regards to politicians, but it must be said that it takes a different kind of person to go into politics, someone who maintains self-confidence in the face of criticism. Someone who has a high regard for himself or herself that is not dissuaded by unsavory behavior that compromises ethics for the sake of political gain. Might I be describing a narcissist? The second article I mentioned above discusses the scanned brains of people with narcissistic personality disorder. In a recent study, researchers found that the degree of empathy exhibited by a person was tied to the volume of gray matter in the brain, both in the group of healthy individuals and those with narcissistic personality disorder. According to psychiatry professor Stefan Röpke of the Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin in Germany, the finding suggests that regardless of personality disorders, the left anterior insula plays an important role in feeling and expressing compassion. In other words, you don’t have to be a narcissist to have a deficiency in the brain matter that controls emotions such as empathy. We all have a degree of narcissism in our personalities. We were born this way. Infants cry because they believe their needs are the most important, and someone must answer them instantly. As babies grow, they learn from their nurturers that they are not, in fact, the center of the universe. Even toddlers three to five have difficulty sharing and retain a “me” and “mine” mindset. With time, however, they learn that giving to others and feeling empathy makes their world a better place. As adults, the healthiest among us has an appropriate degree of self-worth and self-confidence; we cannot function well otherwise. A balance must be achieved to function in society. People get along best with others if they show both a degree of self-confidence and a measure of empathy or compassion. My epiphany came as I recognized that some politicians seem to have an over abundance of self-value. They maintain this by having people around them who constantly build them up and defend them in darkest times. (This too can be said of professional athletes, actors, and musicians.) However, when they behave as if their actions do not affect others, as if the disadvantaged among us deserve little more than lip service, then their capacity for empathy and compassion does come into question. Is it then relevant to assume that for some in the public eye, the gray matter in their brains is simply insufficient? Is it so different from that of truly compassionate people that they cannot be expected to function in the same way? Can we assume that, in fact, many if not most politicians are narcissists or at least lacking some gray matter? I wonder. My point is this: you can argue until the cows come home for someone to “see things as you or I see them,” to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes” or to “feel my pain or others’ pain.” Ultimately, though, it might just be that the person you wish to see or feel just might not have the gray matter to do so. You might just be blowing in the wind.