My Brothers, my last piece I wrote of the frustrations of Social Media and the pain induced by the media we are fed each day. I wanted to continue that journey down a separate path, further articulating that pain, in hopes of understanding the waves of depression that the smallest stone can create. If we want to change our path, we must recognize the impacts of our current course.
As I retreated from social media, I found solace within other screens...video games and television. Streaming media services and online gaming are two industries benefiting greatly by our current ‘situation.’ As I was seeking a new escape, I came across a show from a few years ago entitled "Hannibal." As you may have guessed, the program reviews the earlier professional life of the infamous Hannibal Lecter, prior to Silence of the Lambs and Anthony Hopkins' portrayal of that character. One of the main characters within the show, Will Graham, portrays a brilliant yet troubled mind that is able to identify and track down the most disturbed criminals. Will has the innate ability to get into the mind of the killer, understanding their thoughts and motivations, in order to track them down. Unfortunately, this ability comes at a price…feeling the torment of the criminal, internalizing the feeling that not only drives the horrid actions, but the aftermath as well. It was mentioned that Will's empathy for the killer, the gift that allows him to solve these crimes, also torments his mind. Something about this statement resonated with me, so I started researching.
As I scoured the interwebs for information related to social media and depression, the vast majority of articles focused on the aforementioned phenomenon of Fear of Missing Out, or FOMO. Tying empathy with depression brought about articles like this one discussing how those with depression often suppress their own internal feelings as a mode of survival. Unfortunately, when you spend so much time trying to bury your own feelings, the feelings of those around you are often tossed into the same grave. If we flip that scenario, however, we might think that the happiness and achievements of others can raise us from our depression. By becoming that Perfect Ashlar, we can foster the happiness and joy in others, and feel the joy within our own hearts. But in 2020, when there is so much unhappiness and anger, it drives you further into the depressive state. Further into that chasm.
So I slightly altered my search, considering the reflective feelings I internalize from so many others. Eventually, I did find an article from the Washington Post examining how high levels of empathy can not only mentally, but also physiologically, negatively impact the subjects. Robin Stern, associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, states in the article that “those who regularly prioritize others' emotions over their own are more susceptible to experiencing anxiety or low-level depression.” The specific phrase, “prioritize others’ emotion over their own” was particularly resonating, as I recognized within myself that my own perceived happiness was conceived in the happiness of others.
Another paper, entitled "Empathy and depression: The moral system on overdrive" provided more detail into this phenomenon (much more than I could comprehend). The article states that "People who are depressed most often have normal or elevated levels of empathy; however, their affect-directed, automatic causal interpretations of pain in others are often disturbed, leading to non-conscious assertions of blame, usually placed on themselves." I've written before about Echoism in the Perils of the Perfect Ashlar, so the self loathing was no stranger to me. Following on this thread, the paper asserts that "Depressives are rarely thinking exclusively about the self; instead, they are often dwelling on how they might endanger others, or on their beliefs - often false- that they have harmed others in the past." Overlay these claims with the nonstop animosity we are exposed to every day, and the source of the pain becomes so incredibly obvious.
These new data points within my brain confused me as much as they resonated with me. Wasn’t empathy a good thing, a trait we should all strive for within our daily lives? One could likely argue that with Empathy, those ruffians who created such heinous acts would never have been dealt with accordingly. Was King Solomon’s sentencing simply unjust? Perhaps, similar to other aspects within life, there is a balance that is required, an equilibrium, with Empathy. But what is the opposition to Empathy? When I read the antonyms to the term Empathy, they are all characteristics which we have been taught should be avoided. Detachment. Antagonism. Emotionless. Coldness. These are the characteristics of the psychopathic killer we see portrayed in various forms of media, including the aforementioned show ‘Hannibal.’ So why would you want to achieve balance with a trait that has always been portrayed as something to correct?
As you may have noticed, my writing often creates more questions than answers, after all, the only answers that matter are those we can discover within ourselves. Thus far, within our lessons, I’ve failed to find the guidance of keeping Empathy within due bounds. One could posit that Empathy is simply another passion that must be managed and controlled. But to me, this is a direct contradiction to the root of Charity; boundless and unconditional Love. These contradictions have left me at the proverbial ‘fork in the road.’ For those that have traveled, as well as those who find themselves stuck, let’s continue the conversation as Brothers and Friends. Perhaps this is where the bond of Brotherhood can quell the flames of humanity.
Robert Edward Jackson is a Past Master and recovering Secretary of Montgomery Lodge located in Milford, MA. His Masonic lineage includes his Father (Robert Maitland), Grandfather (Maitland Garrecht), and Great Grandfather (Edward Henry Jackson), a founding member of Scarsdale Lodge #1094 in Scarsdale, NY. When not studying ritual, he's busy being a father to his three kids, a husband, Boy Scout Leader, and a solutions engineer to pay for it all. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org