Monday, November 14, 2022

Alcohol, Opioids, and Empathy

I am a fan of Paul Bloom's book, Against Empathy, mostly for the reasons explained at the link. In short: if we make decisions based on feeling another's suffering, we will only choose to help those we can see and with whom we clearly identify. Those who are suffering out-of-sight are out-of-luck.

Also, by actually feeling others' suffering, we are increasing the amount of suffering in the world.

But sometimes, we are too quick to simply project our experience onto others, and in doing so, pass harsh judgment. 

Earlier this year, Anne and I got together with a long-time friend who had experienced a truly terrible time getting off of opioids. 

As it so happens, I have been on opioids many times, the most recent of which was following the accident in January 2021. After that fall, I was taking opioids daily for over six months. I looked forward to getting off them and had no problems; I have never had a problem stopping.

So it would have been easy to simply project my experience onto our friend and consider them "weak" or some such similar judgment. But if I had been born with the same genetics and had the same experience as them, I would have also had the same troubles. 

Our quickness to project and pass judgment is sadly common. You hear it frequently when it comes to people suffering from depression, anxiety, or other mental illness; many people who have not had the same experience quickly pigeonhole the sufferer as "weak." I think this is probably why many people "stay in the closet" with their difficulties.

To a lesser extent, this is true with alcohol, and in both directions. Many are quickly suspicious of those who, like Leo McGarry on The West Wing, can't have any alcohol. "I don't just want one drink. I want all drinks." And they are also seemingly threatened by those who simply choose not to drink, interrogating and even mocking them instead of simply respecting them.

OTOH, some of those who have had a bad experience with alcohol (or other substance) project their experience onto others, condemning alcohol and those who partake.

In a different way from opioids, alcohol has made my life better. I can have a bit at the end of the day to wind down and relax. I don't drink too much, I never drive when anywhere close to the legal limit, and I don't change in personality.

I don't doubt the experiences of those who have had a bad time with any substance. And I do think we need to have thoughtful policies to minimize risks and harms. But we do need to have empathy for others and not just project our own experiences onto them. 

Song: Barenaked Ladies' "Alcohol."

No wonder I'm always happy in Germany. 😉

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