Most helpful critical review
28 of 40 people found the following review helpful
Well presented and caring, but stretches a point
on September 17, 2000
I note a trend in popular psychology toward a focus on a single emotion. Perhaps in the future every human emotion will have its expert, just as entomologists specialize in beetles or ants or wasps or flies, etc.
At any rate, Ciaramicoli's "practical guide" for self-improvement is distinguished from other similar programs by the author's intense focus, his caring concern, and especially his use of "empathy" as the guiding principle. Ciaramicoli broadens the usual definition of empathy past the point of normal recognition. "All living things are wired for empathy" he asserts (p. 35), and he specifically includes "slime molds" and in fact gives a rather intriguing explanation of why he thinks slime molds have empathy on pages 24-25. In reading this sincere and caring book, I found it necessary to just accept his terminology and not quibble about definitions or the fact that slime molds are not "wired" even metaphorically, because essentially Professor Ciaramicoli is correct in asserting the tremendous power of empathy to help us understand ourselves and others. I wonder, though, how much would have been lost had the word "empathy" been replaced with the word "love."
Ciaramicoli, who is a clinical psychologist and a member of the Harvard Medical School, gives examples from his personal life and from his practice demonstrating (to his satisfaction) the power of empathy to change people's lives for the better. He works hard at making a distinction between, say, sympathy, which "seeks to console," and empathy, which "works to understand" (p. 38). On page 166 he quotes Gretel Ehrlich to the effect that empathy is stronger than sympathy because it contains honesty while sympathy may conceal. Consequently he sees empathy as a double-edged sword that in the hands of enemies or in the hands those who make a practice of exploiting others, can work for malevolent purposes. Clearly "empathy" used in this sense can be replaced with a phrase like "a thorough understanding." But whether empathy for, say, Saddam Hussein or even for O.J. Simpson, would or could change them for the better is, to my mind, debatable.
Ciaramicoli was led to write this book in part because of the tragedy of his younger brother who died of an apparent intentional, self-inflicted overdose of heroin. He expresses a sense of guilt about his brother's wasted life and writes that he believes, had he and others been more empathetic, the tragedy could have been averted. I am not so sure. Of course Ciaramicoli should realize that he is not his brother's keeper, but more importantly he should know that heroin addicts are not freed from their addiction and their self-destructive behavior through empathy, and Ciaramicoli should not in any way blame himself. Of course if you are a successful older brother, who is everything the younger brother could not be, it is hard not to feel some sort of guilt, something akin to "survivor guilt." Ciaramicoli would do himself a favor by studying the literature on heroin addiction and listening to the experience of other families who have experienced similar addiction tragedies. I think such knowledge would help him overcome his profound sense of guilt. (A little work with evolutionary psychology on the nature of dominance among siblings wouldn't hurt either!)
Although I don't agree with some of the psychology expressed here, I certainly agree with Ciaramicoli's intent to help others. He writes about responding to the tears of children in "comforting, reassuring ways" instead of with indifference. No one can disagree with that. However, if a child is rewarded whenever it cries, it will tend to cry more, and when the child is older, if its antisocial behavior is rewarded with "empathy" to the exclusion of a clear expression that what the young person is doing is wrong, the young person may be led into continued antisocial and ultimately self-destructive behavior. It has been said that "to know all is to forgive all," meaning if we knew all the circumstances that led to a person's behavior we might well conclude, "there, but for the grace of God, go I." That is empathy, for sure. Nonetheless we, as a society, must still punish the transgressor, lest others be lead astray.
I think this is a book that may resonate with some people where other books have not been helpful, just as the author's notion of "empathy" may work where the usual guiding principle "love" has not. I really think it boils down to "The Power of Love and Understanding," but I suspect that book has already been written many times over.