Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Morning Relatedness

Cerebral cortexImage via Wikipedia
I'm intrigued by the things that come to mind within the first few minutes of rising -- random thoughts that surface while shaving or making breakfast. Maybe they're the residual of dreams or something that occupied us as we drifted off to sleep, and now they're playing around in the cerebral cortex, stamping through puddles of coffee like a kid in a rainstorm.

I was in the middle of fat-free-frying (try saying that seven times fast) hash browns with scrambled egg beaters this morning, when I started thinking about empathy. As happens occasionally, my thoughts took the form of an internal dialogue in which I was talking to a non-specific someone and mentioned that, at a broad level, empathy, the ability to imagine how it might feel to be in another's shoes, generates the atmosphere which makes relating possible.

That lead me to think about what it must be like living with someone who is so self-oriented as to be incapable of empathy and thus possess an impaired capacity for relatedness. Now, this can take many forms, ranging from attention-seeking and dramatic behavior to out and out manipulation. But it occurred to me that in these situations, a normally empathetic partner might have to become self-interested in the interest of survival.

I think this helps explain why some relationships seem so sterile. Empathy triggers consideration and mutual respect. Without it, partners become defensive whether they're aware of it or not. It doesn't have to be intimate relationships -- even casual ones can involve throwing up walls of self-protection. In the language of recovery, we'd say a particular person wasn't "safe," and their characteristic way of interacting failed to create a sense of comfort in others.

I learned a long time ago to rely on what my dog says about a person. Not that he takes me aside and whispers in my ear, but his behavior tells me whom he regards as approachable. Whether by instinct or intuition, he knows who will appreciate his attention. Lacking whatever it is he has and not always having recourse to a dog's presence, we humans have to work at developing a similar ability, but I think it's well worth the effort.

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