My utopian dream: an empathic society

If I was all-powerful and could re-arrange the core values of society, goodness and empathy would hold top positions. Not intelligence, wealth or beauty.

I’ve questioned the almost unquestionable merit of knowledge and intelligence before. I do not dispute that knowledge and intellect are valuable and responsible for a great many wonderful advancements, but they are amoral. Intelligence without empathy can be extremely harmful, which is why, in my ideal society, it would take a second place after kindness.

I’ve recently had a few courses were intelligence has been discussed along with intelligence testing. I can’t help but think how distasteful it is to arrange people based on their IQs. Maybe university professors love studying IQ because their own is medium to high. They are among the privileged group thanks to their genes and beneficial upbringing. It would be less so if their own was 95 (an impossibility, but let us suppose). There are charts ranking occupations and education levels and the average IQ.

Imagine being among the low IQ people. Their good fortune sometimes is that they don’t realise their own lack. Of course, it has been found that the less a person knows, the smarter they believe they are. But there are certainly many exceptions. People who are painfully aware of how they don’t get math or understand complex academic papers. Who suffer for it and feel they are good for nothing. Intelligence testing and ordering people based on IQ feels as unethical to me as ordering people based on looks – having an attractiveness quotient. Not because of the testing itself, but because of the value judgements that come with it.

Most people want to be considered intelligent because it has prestige and power. They generally want to receive an above-average IQ score. When they don’t, they tend to get a tiny bit disappointed. Alternatively, they start claiming how tests are faulty and don’t measure real intelligence. They do it to defend themselves from the label of being only average in intelligence, or below average. Readjusting tests is not an answer. It is too superficial and maintains the hierarchy. It just disadvantages someone else. I deeply, fundamentally dislike a society where people are ordered based on who is better than the other. Hierarchy is not so bad in itself, but if value judgements are added, it is. Ego massage for those at the top, self-esteem killer for those at the bottom. That seems to be human nature though. Labelling and competing.

So if we can’t live without competing with each other and wanting to be better, I wish that we could compete with each other in empathy. That being empathic and kind would be the highest values a person could aspire to and that having attained them, people would be rewarded with the same prestige and honours that the intelligent, beautiful and wealthy receive in our society. Furthermore, unlike IQ, empathy is a lot more flexible. For the average person, it is a lot more receptive to cultivation. If being emphatic was prestigious and people were motivated to cultivate that part of them, the world would surely become a kinder place.

In the present world, it often seems to me people are afraid of being kind. It feels “too much”. People who are caring and empathic are not respected enough. It has no obvious profit in it. Being middle-of-the-way is a lot more desirable, lest you be deemed a fool or an altruist.


Today is one of those days where my strangeness is oppressive and slightly frightening. Normally I embrace it.

I’m intensely aware of how far my ideas have diverged from the mainstream and it frightens me what may await in the future yet. I can almost see myself turning into a solitary weirdo living in the woods somewhere, with cats and sheep. And having maybe one friend. Or it may just be a mental solitude. Inability to talk to anyone of anything beyond the daily stuff. I feel recently that I’ve become disagreeable and struggle more than before to find common ground with new people.

I’d like to become a therapist one day, but the university programme puts me off the idea. I happily study human anatomy or learn techniques of making people open up and improve, but there is not a lot of practical focus like that. I have also stopped seeing the point in all the course work. Exams should be enough to prove I understand, since proof of understanding is required. I’m not a circus monkey who has to demonstrate my skills in three tests, an essay and a presentation in addition. And that in 10 subjects per term. The entire Western education system of forcing students to perform so they get a nose bleed and caffeine overdose is not something I want to participate in. But that is only half of it. The biggest problem is incompatibility of values. My values are not academic or scientific. My values are artistic and spiritual. There is something in most lectures that I find grating. Yesterday it was seeing introversion listed among negative traits, along with aggressiveness.  Also, the only science I respect fully is the one free of ideology. And psychology is mostly not it.

If I ever talk militant or aggressive myself, it’s because I feel so out of place – the world is coming down on me like a ton of bricks.

I just don’t know what to do. Drag myself through the university circus or not? Facts are: a) I want to help people as a therapist b) I have talent for it c) university does not make my eyes shine and feels like a gigantic ordeal, so packed with unpleasantness that the end result is hardly worth it.

Where does time go?

My dream life is to wake up in the morning and decide what I want to do with the day. To read a book on English 19th century peasantry, practice watercolour painting or plant roses? To bake the fanciest cake ever or to write a novel? To build a gazebo or to go out with my favourite person? With not an obligation in the world, except those I’ve willingly taken upon me.

It is not a particularly novel life to long for. Many have wished it before me, wish it currently and will probably wish it in the future as well, unless something in society’s foundations should radically change.

Few will ever attain it before retirement. There is work. There is money that has to be made.  I’m not even speaking of career and renown, but simply money, without which you cannot afford to live ‘normally’. You cannot even afford roses to plant. And living on the street and from the bin is not a tempting option (for most). I don’t want that and yet I don’t want a normal job either.


At the end of the week, I realise all I’ve done is work, sleep, eat, lurk about on the web and watch films, and perhaps a few hours of sport or walking. I’ve not advanced one inch closer to the things on my “Things to Do/Learn Before I Die” list. And this repeats every week. And it makes me feel frustrated and frightened. Time is running out. I must escape before it is too late. Before I’m middle-aged and half of life has passed me by without me doing any of the things I REALLY want to do. On the days I would have the time, I feel too emotionally knackered and stressed to take up painting or write novels. I just want to switch off and do something undemanding, like go roller-skating, walking or watch a film. When I’m especially knackered, I look at dumb/simple content on the web. Stronger people can manage more and I envy them. Sadly, not everyone is made the same way. I cannot become like the strong and capable people who can juggle multiple jobs with ease. It’d lead to a burnout for me, while it may energize others. I need a slow pace and I need autonomy. So while I cannot change myself, I can try to change the circumstances around me.


On pathologisation

I was sitting in a lecture the other day and the topic was developmental, emotional and behavioural disorders in childhood and early adolescence.

I couldn’t believe my eyes nor ears when the figures were displayed on the board. 20% of children and young people suffer from some mental disorder?!! 30!!? Jesus effing Christ.

Where are those disordered children? Are they really hidden away from us, being home-schooled or taught at specialized institutions? But how can you hide as large a proportion of society as 20-30%. You could not. When I went to school, and I went to more than one and came in contact with at least 100 children and teenagers, almost no one had a psychological disorder. I’m not making this statement as a doctor or psychologist, I’m making this statement as a human being assessing other human beings. Nearly all children and teens I encountered were mentally healthy individuals to me. I was a mentally healthy individual. Some of us had certain qualities that made us different. I was shy. Excruciatingly shy, but I never thought of myself as being mentally disordered. Nor did I think so of anyone else, even if they were hyperactive, highly-strung or uninterested in studying. With the exception of two people, who indeed seemed ‘very different’ on some deeper, fundamental level. In hindsight, they may have had an autism spectrum disorder. That still accounts for roughly 2%.

Furthermore, a large proportion of children, but more so adolescents and adults go through their life undiagnosed. It strikes me as being particularly common with depression, eating disorders and various anxiety disorders. If we add all the undiagnosed people to the list of the diagnosed, wouldn’t that add up to a half of the population? Is it really right to classify half of the population as mentally disordered?

The good and bad of pathologising

I do not think that pathologization is all evil. Its chief merit lies in helping people with personal difficulties find themselves, adjust better and hopefully be more successful in life. Here and there, I’ve spotted the opinion that the label of a specific disorder helps people. Instead of feeling ‘weird’ and all alone, trying to fight for your position in society against overwhelming odds and personal disadvantages, you suddenly belong. The responsibility and the need to fight are eliminated. You have a disorder and that explains all your problems and exempts you from needing to be strong, a social success, or whatever it is your particular disorder keeps you from being, but society expects of you.

All good, isn’t it?

It is and it isn’t. For example, introverts struggle too. And are often glad and relieved to learn more about it. It achieves the same thing for them – they belong, no longer feel weird and learn to adopt (hopefully) a positive attitude to their personality.

Why can’t hyperactivity be just a quality? Anxiety (milder forms)? Depression? Who is shy and who has a social anxiety disorder? Who draws the line? Should we draw the line so that to pathologize a large proportion of society or should we restrict the label of ‘disorder’ to a minority of extreme cases, in the end?

It probably does not require an explanation that I support the latter. Google catatonic schizophrenia and suddenly, nearly everyone with ADHD and mild to moderate depression seems a perfectly healthy human being.

What pathologization achieves is that it limits both the individual with the supposed disorder and the perceptions others have of them. Everything begins to revolve around the disorder.  The person may start avoiding certain situations as incompatible with their disorder (without actual necessity), may restrict their social interactions to people also suffering from the same disorder, may turn down job offers as incompatible with their condition (even if they wouldn’t really be). They may adopt a victim position, alienating others, or they may be treated as a disorder and not as an individual, with many other qualities besides the disorder.

The following is not a mental disorder, but the analogy works very well. A little while ago I read about a woman who had lost her left arm in a work accident. Since then, she has lived the life of a ‘proper’ disabled person, attending disabled person’s Christmas parties and having disabled people as friends. I read this and thought – it is only an arm, for heaven’s sake, she could have lived like anyone else if she wanted to! Maybe not done certain activities and jobs, but otherwise….

What I don’t like about schools

Everyone has different experiences with schools and the education system. Mine is  – all things considered – a neutral one. And yes, I can’t believe I’m saying this! Both the early school years and the later ones at university held for me disappointments and struggles as well as excitement and joys.

The struggles are primarily related to being a shy introvert. I’m fortunate to live in a society where you are not expected to speak a lot in class and can get away with contributing minimally. As a rule. But sometimes there are exceptions and I have received lower grades for my refusal to contribute or my very small contributions. Is this fair? As fair as slower students losing points on timed tests and nervous ones experiencing a drop in their thinking capacity during high-pressure exams.

It may amuse people to know that when I pick my subjects for the next semester, I do not make the choice – provided I have any choice – based on which subjects interest me more, but based on whether there are presentations and whether the grade includes participation in discussions. If it does, there is no way I will elect this subject. I have no problem with class participation in language classes or mathematics, for example. I can easily read out grammar sentences, getting it wrong does not mortify me to the point of wanting the ground to swallow me.

Quite a different matter is any class involving proper discussion or less straight-forward questions (e.g history, politics, sociology). Let us take a classic literature class. I love literary discussions and am always involved in my mind, but I’m not a good contributor. I need time to prepare my answer, so when I’m suddenly asked, I rarely can think of anything to say on spot. Anything sensible, that is. So I say something dumb and not representative of my real understanding of the subject. And then I feel really bad, because no one knows I actually understand. All they have is that impression based on my poor verbal performance. The grade is appropriate too, naturally. Although in my country, many professors and teachers have actually shown understanding and not been as strict as they could have with me. I appreciate you and am grateful.

What I’ve actually started doing to cope with this situation is to try to get through presentations and discussions with extremely low expectations on myself. Otherwise, persistent under-perfomance starts getting to me. I no longer tell myself to do well, I tell myself that it’s a success if you get through the ordeal without any blush-worthy statements.

I wish that one day the education system would learn to offer different assessment methods for introverts and extroverts. The latter love participation and presentations and do very well there, but may not be particularly stellar on paper. Introverts are the opposite. Why not let both types express their knowledge in forms best suited to their temperaments.

Have all these class participation things made me a better public performer? Absolutely not. Every situation is different and while I may eventually get the hang of doing presentations without my hands shaking, spontaneous participation in class will never be my thing and I’ve seen no improvement in that particular arena.