Somebody on Facebook AN group brought up the question of whether philapnthropic antinatalists who are depressed are depressed because of their elevated sensitivity and concern for others and if so, why aren't they out trying to help everyone: "The idea that the only people who enjoy their lives and understand the "human condition" are egoists and/or notably indifferent to the suffering of others is both wrong and ironically narcissistic. Anyone who in some way deeply grokked and felt the suffering of the world would devote his/her whole life to the alleviation of it, living in accord with something at least roughly akin to Peter Singer's moral principles regarding Third World aid. No one sparing time to write FB posts about AN is living up to that standard. There is, in fact, no AN whom I'm aware of who lives as such. Thus I find it difficult to take seriously ANs who try to paint their personal dissatisfaction/lack of happiness as symptomatic of some moral enlightenment" - he writes.
Now, I don't have to defend the 'only depressed people are the sensitive ones and the happy ones are psychopaths' position because I do not adhere to it. Our psyche has the defense mechanisms that permit us to feel all right being surrounded by or even suffering ourselves. But the thought that "Anyone who in some way deeply grokked and felt the suffering of the world would devote his/her whole life to the alleviation of it" caught my attention and made me think of the relation between empathy, compassion and living a life of activism and servitude.
I don't think it's fair to assume that more empathy would automatically result in more actions being taken to fight the root cause of problem - somebody else's suffering as opposed to fighting the empathy itself. It presupposes the only way to stop feeling empathy is to help that other in trouble and that this feeling can't be controlled. Yet every day we are scrolling down upsetting pictures, calls for help etc. Today I have much more control over my empathy than i had as a child when i cried at nights thinking of puppies being cold outside or cats fighting and hurting one another.
Yes, it did motivate me to try and help the animals, I would bring them home but parents wouldn't let me house every stray dog and cat. "You can't help them all" I was told. So from that point I started questioning the value of empathy if it tortures me every time it appears but i can only help a minor percent of those who I empathize with.
When I grew older I also realized that I have some serious needs and desires of my own and to enjoy life I need to be able to shield myself from that bugging sensation that spoils my mood and costs me huge effort to get myself back to wanting to live in this world at all. Because, see, relieving empathy by helping others doesn't necessarily makes one happy. I fed a stray dog today, with the catfood I specifically bought for this purpose (cat food is cheaper, i feed it to both cats and dogs, they don't mind), and it felt somewhat ok, or better than me having to pass through a dog and not having anything to give to it. But it doesn't make me happier, I still think of all those I can't feed and how hard their lives are regardless. I surely enjoy many more other activities times more than helping the needy. I have hobbies I love, books, movies, I'm your regular hedonistic human being who sees no point in being born to serve somebody else. Just because I feel for other living beings, doesn't mean it trumps all my other motivations. Could I just give up doing things I love to aleviate more suffering in the world? Hell no. Otherwise count me out, I don't want to have to live to only be a fixer of the overwhelmingly huge pile of problems that I haven't even created.
Thus, even on my own example I see a gap between empathy and action. I can see how higher capacity for empathy can, on the contrary, stimulate the person to shut down completely, rather than become a selfless helper. Higher on the onset doesn't mean it will be the same through life.
If I let myself feel that full force of empathy towards the worst of suffering, it reminds me that I would trade every happiness I've ever experienced in my entire life for a chance to not feel that pain and agony of helplessness.
That state of mind is too despondent and crippling for functioning in this world. It can either cause depression or suicidal thoughts. It does not fuel activism.
To me, as I try to be rational, giving in to a depressing state makes no sense: does no good to me, upsets my friends and family, doesn't make me any more moral or productive, definitely less productive.
So unless I am deciding to off myself I should try all my might to stay in a good mood most of the time, which implies cutting the strongest and most threatening empathy hits right at the beginning. It's like self-preservation, you do it as if your life depended upon it, stopping that feeling.
Now, I can understand some people may find it more difficult to switch, to stop thinking of the traumatic situation, to forget. Some have obsessive tendencies which compel them to chew on the same thought over and over. Luckily for me, I seem to be ok in that regard. But I can possibly imagine somebody being depressed with their empathy level being a contributing factor.
To be fair, I can also imagine how someone who is depressed primarily due to his own predicament would want to both perceive himself and be perceived as someone who is not simply unfortunate to be so, but in fact, too sensitive and preoccupied with world's suffering. That's why sometimes, you see people who, while depressed, lean towards pessimistic philosophies, but once their condition improves flip and justify their new outlook on life in which things, apparently, aren't so bad.
And now, to be completely fair, I can see how people of the opposite camp, so to say, the optimistic one, would try and elevate their position as not merely something they're predisposed to by the circumstances in life and brain chemistry, but by their wisdom and ability to persevere and solve difficult situations where others give up. Aren't optimists painting themselves as enlightened, too?
They, in their turn, try to paint pessimists as hypocrites for not either killing themselves or leading a life of altruistic servitude to those they claim to care about and dedicating their lives to fixing problems they dare mention. After all, I used to have the same positive illusions as others and I know how the view is from that window: some people complaining they're unhappy, probably playing victim so they could get attention, or they're too stupid to know how to enjoy life - because all smart people like yourself have figured it out, despite all the difficulties, and other people far worse than yourself have testified that they're happy, so it is possible and thus, you're not going to bother your perfect happy world with any more bullshit from those drama-making whiners. Or let them come for psychological help and pay. There. Back to happy place and butterflies.
Such attitude solves the problem of empathy. You legitimately turn it off because life is good, and when somebody says it isn't, it's either their own fault, or it will pass and get back to being good for that person and they will learn to appreciate life again.
Today I find this view despicable but...I have been there, I have felt that, the only positive I see from that is that I can understand both sides now.
What seems to be the conclusion is that whatever outlook a given person has on life, they're trying to praise themselves for it and take pride in it and defend its legitimacy. We all have narcissistic needs and wherever we go we try to satisfy them. There is no way to say that only pessimists are after it or only optimists are. We are very similar on this one, I think ;)
I forgot who said 'pride is the only sin you can never get rid of, because once you do, you start taking pride in that'.
People who engage in activism like to think they're only doing it for selfless reasons, and they sometimes may indeed (define 'selfless' though), and those who never donate a dime feel the urge to speculate how all altruism is either pride or guilt driven and no normal people would be compelled to act in that way.
Poor people like to think themselves more spiritual and generous, only unfortunate and robbed by rich people, who, in their turn, think the poor are a bunch of lazy fucks who could be just like them if only they weren't so lazy.
Vegans will tell you why their way of life is superior, carnists will defend their comfort zone and accuse them of doing more harm or being religious fanatics.
Our true motivations are very often - I'm tempted to say, always - are selfish. But in the same time, that doesn't negate the value of selfless - if only on the outside - acts. Both couch popato guy and a charity organization activist may have selfish motives, but the result of their actions is drastically different and you can easily answer who of them the world needs more.
It sometimes seems that we value empathetic ability on its own, as if it makes the person experiencing empathy a nobler, more worthy human being. But today I think, being able or even predisposed to empathizing with others makes a person no more noble than an ability for having a headache, or a migraine if you wish. Because it's something endowed, coming from within and appearing even in little children and animals. It's a fucking visceral reaction which may or may not be followed by a productive, harm-reducing act. It may forever remain that useless headache that came and left and resulted in nothing.
Personally, I am always torn by this moral dilemma of how much I am willing to sacrifice. I don't go into guilt trips but I'm not proud of the little amount of money/things I give. Freaking life and its problems. Or is it easy? Let's ask the savage chickens here ;)