regular-article-logo Saturday, 09 December 2023

The empathy code

If we want to participate in public life in any capacity and find happiness as individuals, we must allow all realities to overflow into one another instead of compartmentalising our existence

T.M. Krishna Published 27.10.23, 05:32 AM
Happiness is also a serious business.

Happiness is also a serious business. Sourced by the Telegraph

There was a time when many of us could go about our lives with very little care about what was going on beyond our circle of existence. The use of the word, ‘our’, in the first line is specific. It refers to the socially privileged middle and upper classes. For those in this group who had financial difficulties or limitations, making ends meet and the aspiration for a better life shut out the outside world. For those who lived far above the common financial tree line, the real world was immaterial. Personal, emotional, and psychological struggles covered the entire spectrum of society although the causes may have been different.

Knowledge about happenings in the larger world were first received through announcers who went around villages. Then came posters, newspapers, radio, television and so on. The time it took for information to reach individuals depended on their location. The further away people were from a city, the probability that they got to know of worldwide happenings was lesser. When news did reach after a couple of weeks, what it really meant to them was also different. The understandings of space and time have been constantly changing. When someone in Thanjavur said ‘from the North’ about two hundred years ago, he was probably referring to Vijayanagaram or thereabouts. Today, when the same expression is used, it transports our imagination to the Red Fort. The inverse is also true. The idea of what is local has also expanded. Even if the extent of this comprehension varies from region to region, there is a universal understanding that all of us inhabit the local and the global simultaneously and our actions are all inter-connected.


The internet has played an enormous role in collapsing our world. Images, moving pictures and words travel the earth at the speed of light, offering people living on two ends of the planet glimpses of each other’s realities. Today, a person living in Maputo, Mozambique, can learn about the forest fires in Australia and a resident of Angamaly in India can gain insights into changes in go­vernment in South America. Even though all these happenings are available online and algorithms do their thing, the thirst to know more needs to come from the individual. Let us proceed with the assumption that this effort has been made.

Along with the innumerable joyful events, we are also constantly witnessing violence of various shades. There is a war in Ukraine, Gaza is being bombed insistently, Afghanistan is a land of oppression under the Taliban, and there are civil wars in Syria and in Lebanon. Within India, Manipur is still a place of deep division and aggression, Muslims and Dalits are targets of brutality, the number of activists and journalists being arrested is ever increasing, and constitutional institutions are under attack. In my state, Tamil Nadu, Dalits are targeted by powerful caste lobbies, honour killings are rampant, there is continued corporatisation of public services, and degradation of our environment. Then, there are local issues that engulf my city and ultra-local troubles faced by people in my suburb and street. I have listed those problems that come through my social media feed and interactions. I am certain they are mediated by my priorities and, therefore, ignore many concerns of others.

With so much information reaching us instantly, there is a thought that comes to the mind of any person engaged in this wider world dominated by hurt, anger and destruction. We wonder, at least occasionally, whether it is okay to find happiness, laugh at the silliest of things, and actively seek pleasure. I am not suggesting that people should remain permanently remorseful or live in guilt. But there is indeed a real emotional contradiction. At one moment, we read about a child being hacked to death and, then, within an hour, we are celebrating a victory in a cricket match. Even reading these two events in the same line is deeply disturbing. We can ignore this entire train of thought by speaking of separating the personal and the public or of the need for self-preservation. But this is escapism. A deeper discussion about this dichotomy is required without choosing sides between perpetual guilt and utter insensitivity.

What might be needed is to allow this contradiction to play out without judgement while we take part in both, completely and seriously. Happiness is also a serious business. When we stumble upon preciousness while spending time with our family or when we laugh hysterically at a meme, we should commit to those moments. Similarly, when we are learning about the horrors unfolding in others’ lives, even if it is via news bulletins, it must be a committed act. The problem is that both these activities are half-hearted. It is not only to protect ourselves from sadness but we are also unable to celebrate life. It is this overall state of dis-earnestness that needs to be discarded. When we give ourselves to whatever we are doing, there is honesty. With honesty comes pause and measure. This results in a tempering of our privileged lives. No one can prescribe temperament levels, but an inner compass becomes operational.

The jarring part of these shifts in states is the suddenness of the switch. When we look back at our day, we are uncomfortable with how we behaved. The lack of any flow in these transitions is reflective of the need to wish away or forget. One can understand the want to erase the unpleasant, but why would we do that to the pleasant? The presumption that we want to hold on to all happiness is flawed. If happiness is a product of, or results in an affirmation of our ‘self’, like when we receive appreciation, we will hold on to it. But if the delight is for someone else, in which we are partaking, it is only a passing phase. The reduced involvement in the happiness of others and the need to forget the negatives of life are two sides of the same coin.

As participants, we are also under pressure from within to react to all that is going on around the world. This is not to counter whataboutery, but to satisfy our own sense of equivalence. This urgency diminishes the intensity of our learning; whatever we say or do is thus superficial, if not trivial. This is, once again, not about the suffering of the people whom we speak of or for, but more about feeling better about ourselves. It might be wise to remain silent and let response take its own course. When it comes from such a place, it naturally gives the stage to those who need it while we remain on the sidelines as allies.

De-centralising life from our personal needs helps in finding a way to navigate the contrasts thrown at us. Empathy is not just about feeling another’s pain; it is as much about rejoicing in the celebration of others. Democratic values are born from empathy and collective happiness also finds its soul in empathy. If we want to participate in public life in any capacity and find happiness as individuals, we must allow all realities to overflow into one another instead of compartmentalising our existence.

T.M. Krishna is a leading Indian musician and a prominent public intellectual

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