I am too soft-hearted, it’s getting worse, and it’s a nuisance.

I know what you’re thinking – Andrew’s been stopping to give money to every beggar he passes in the street, so he never has any money left to buy lunch, and he’s always late for work. Well, actually no. I would call that sort of behaviour Compassionate rather than soft-hearted. That’s an altogether more laudable quality and one on which I don’t measure up especially well, although I am working to try to improve it (I give large amounts to carefully selected charities, but not usually to beggars, for non-soft-hearted reasons that are beyond the scope of this essay).

What’s the difference? Well to me, Compassion is the ability to discern the suffering of others and empathise, combined with a disposition to act towards alleviating the suffering. Soft-heartedness on the other hand is a tendency to get very upset about the distress of another, when one discerns it. I’m not very good at discerning the suffering of others, so unfortunately I’m more likely to perceive a beggar as an obstacle and a nuisance than as a suffering person in need of help.

The difference is particularly apparent in situations of conflict. People who are rude or inconsiderate often act thus because they are suffering in some way. Unlike a very compassionate person, I will often resist or even retaliate against unfriendly behaviour without stopping to think about how the antagonist might be feeling. But later, I might pause to wonder how they felt, and feel bad about the conflict – even if they started it. If I were more skilled at compassion, the conflict might never have happened. In such scenarios, the difference between compassion and soft-heartedness is timing, and regret.

My soft-heartedness manifests itself mostly when I am reading or watching fiction. I get very upset when something sad is happening. To see the sadness in fiction, there is no need for the discernment skills of a truly compassionate person, because the suffering is usually presented so starkly that only an emotionally tone-deaf person could miss it.

When I encounter such sad tales, I do the grown-up equivalent of a child hiding behind the sofa when the Daleks appear on Doctor Who shrieking ‘EXTERMINATE!’ I stop reading/watching.

Usually I will close the book, or stop the DVD, and go and do something else, because I just can’t stand wallowing in that misery any further. I might even pick up a different book or DVD and read/watch that for a while.

Often I stop reading before the bad thing even happens, if I know it is just about to happen.

I have found that, if I leave the book for a day or more, I can summon up the ‘courage’ to come back to it and read a little bit more. I can get through the arrest of Edmond Dantes in Le Comte de Monte Cristo if I start right at that point, without having just gone through the lead up of the joyful engagement celebration with his beloved Mercédès, from which he was untimely ripp’d by the officers of the Procureur du Roi.

I think the reason that works is that, by distancing myself from the book for a while, I loosen my emotional ties to Edmond and Mercédès, so I care somewhat less about what happens to them (they are, after all, only fictional!). I see them less as people, so I am more able to stand their misfortunes.

As an aside, this technique of using distance and de-personalisation to block empathy is employed very effectively by the current Australian government to support its program of treating refugees brutally in order to discourage subsequent refugees. It forbids the publication of any personal information about the refugees, including photos that show any faces, and it keeps the refugees in detention camps on distant islands, where hardly any voting Australians, or journalists, will get to see them. That way, voters are less likely to realise that the ‘illegal arrivals’ their government is brutalising in their name are humans, with feelings and parents and children. Thereby, the voters will be less likely to feel empathy, and consequent revulsion at what is being done in their name.

While I am (obviously) strongly opposed to the use of such techniques with real people, I can vouch for them as highly beneficial in the case of fictional ones. I got myself through Edmond’s fourteen years of solitary confinement in a dungeon under the gloomy island fortress the Chateau d’If by taking it a few pages at a time, interspersed with regular breaks in which I reminded myself that Edmond, Mercédès and Edmond’s lonely, destitute father (who died of starvation and a broken heart while Edmond was imprisoned) were not real.

There has to be something to make it worth the effort though. I will only persist with struggling through long, gloomy passages of a book if I think that they are essential to the art, and that there will be at least some redemption later on that makes it worth the pain. If those criteria appear unlikely to be met, I cast the book aside for good. I did that with Arundhati Roy’s ‘The God of Small Things’. There was too much child abuse and misery, with no clear indicator as to why I should subject myself to reading about it. In Monte Cristo, it was worth suffering through though, for what came later. This filtering process rules out most movies with lots of violence, including those involving organised crime or serial killers (that’s about two-thirds of the best-seller shelf gone right there). Stories focusing on emotional cruelty in dysfunctional relationships are similarly excluded, unless the depiction of the cruelty can be justified by egregious artistic merit or the imparting of great wisdom. The TV news is also excluded – I can stay abreast of what I need to know as an engaged citizen by just scanning the headlines and reading important articles on a reputable news site like I don’t need to know about grisly murders, abductions and far-away terrorist attacks. I know that violence and cruelty happen in the world. I will do what I can to prevent it. There is no need for me to submit to ghoulish blow-by-blow accounts of it in order to be persuaded to act where appropriate.

The intermittent approach to reading and watching has become very prevalent with me lately. I will have several movies on the go at once, in some cases watching only 5-10 minutes of each at a time, in order not to get too emotionally involved. I’m intermittently watching one at the moment called “À l’origine”, in which a con man tricks a whole load of construction contractors in an economically depressed town into working for him on the promise of deferred pay – while he demands cash bribes from them for ‘awarding’ them the contracts. I cringe at the thought of the devastation and despair that will ensue when the contractors are not paid, having borrowed heavily to hire machinery and staff. Currently I’m down to watching less than five minutes at a time. It’s touch and go whether I’ll make it through, notwithstanding the plaudits it received at Cannes (why are so many film festival films miserable?).

I think there is an overlap between soft-heartedness and the much-derided trait of Sentimentality, because they can both involve strong feelings of empathy. But they are not the same. Sentimentality is something like a wallowing in tender emotions, which includes sadness but also sweetness, admiration and nostalgia. The most potent criticism of the writing of Charles Dickens (whom I love) is that it is sometimes too sentimental. The worst bits seem ludicrously over-the-top to us, but that’s what Victorian-era Britons loved. Oscar Wilde summed it up so well when he said ‘One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing‘. I didn’t laugh at Little Nell’s demise, but I did cringe. The presentation was too twee, too unrealistic, to invoke my sympathies. I could no more mourn her than I could mourn the coyote in Hanna Barbera’s Road Runner cartoons being blown up (yet again) by his own sticks of dynamite.

I think sentimentality is a particularly unhelpful emotion because it tends to generate sympathy only when the suffering heroine is very lovable. Yet the people most in need of empathy are generally not easy to love. If they were, they might have received more help, and not be in such a desperate situation. So some Victorian sentimentalists saw no contradiction between on the one hand weeping uncontrollably over saintly, pretty Little Nell and on the other going to watch the public execution of some filthy, ugly, foul-mouthed ne’er-do-well that had the misfortune of being born into a social stratum in which the only way to survive was to join a street gang and steal.

Soft-heartedness is not much better than Sentimentality, but maybe it’s one step further from inanity. It at least allows one to feel sympathy for – and hence maybe to help – ratbags, thiefs and murderers, if their suffering is sufficiently apparent.

Another manifestation of my soft-heartedness is a terrible dislike of disappointing people. In bygone days, when I managed a whole bunch of people at work, I hated when, after doing interviews for a new hire, I had to tell the unsuccessful applicants that they were unsuccessful. My imagination would picture them dissolving in tears of despair as soon as they put the phone down, all their hopes and dreams dashed, despair looming. I doubt that ever happened, but in my imagination it happened all the time. Soft!

That’s where being soft-hearted can be a socially unhelpful trait, rather than just a privately irritating one. I decided to no longer manage people at work, partly because I found having to be their boss, or potential boss (in the case of job applicants), too stressful. Based on the performance reviews I received, it seems I was a better than average boss, so by removing myself from the pool of managers I suppose I have slightly degraded the overall quality of the management in the organisations in which I work. A good manager will do the unpleasant managerial tasks, the tickings-off, the firings, the counselling of underperforming employees, the ‘no we don’t want you’ phone calls to job applicants, firmly but as kindly as possible, taking a ‘cruel to be kind’ approach when necessary. I did that, but disliked it because I was too soft-hearted about it, so now I don’t do it any more. It doesn’t really matter though in this particular case, because not doing management frees up my time to do more complicated technical work, where my comparative advantage, and hence my value to the organisation, is stronger than it is in people management.

The main book I’m reading at present is Muriel Barbery’s ‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’. The story is told in alternating sections by the misanthropic, impoverished yet highly literate concierge of a Parisian apartment building with wealthy occupants, and the precocious, nihilistic, world-weary, twelve-year old daughter of one family of occupants. There was no great tragedy happening, but it was all rather gloomy, seen through such misanthropic pairs of eyes, which made it hard going. I could only read a few pages at a time. But all of a sudden the mood brightened! In one short chapter the concierge reveals that she actually likes someone – a nineteen-year old daughter of a family in another of the apartments, who is determined to be a rural vet – against the wishes of her family, who don’t think the profession is classy enough. The girl regularly visits the concierge in her ‘lair’ to have long chats over tea about the health of Léon, the concierge’s cat, and the other animals in the building. It’s amazing what a difference a little ray of sunshine like that can make. All of a sudden, I’m looking forward to the rest of the book.


Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, July 2015