I originally composed most of this post out of the things I said while counselling some dear friends of mine who were driving themselves into a panic spiral thinking about the approximately 1.7 people who were dying every second, and feeling responsible even though there was nothing they could do, at that time, to save them. I posted it to my personal blog, but decided to share it here as well, hoping that it contributes to the dicussion, and may help some other sensitive people to preserve themselves against despair, for the good of the future.
There is a certain kind of person who notices that the world is full of suffering, and after they have noticed this, they feel obligated to remind themselves regularly, even to great personal detriment and into depression. These people cannot bring themselves to turn away from suffering even to maintain their own health... not until they are so overwhelmed by compassion for other peoples' pain that they are at risk of breaking down with stress and illness. Why? ... Likely guilt, because they would perceive it as selfish to deliberately ignore someone else's suffering in order to feel better themselves, even if there is nothing they can do about it right now. Likely also fear... that if they did turn away, they would be making themselves into monsters, joining the complicit majority of people who do not act to prevent suffering, who do not seem to care.
I am one such a person, and the kinds of people I make friends with are often prone to this phenomenon. Jennifer Freed calls it "The Empath's Dilemma," but I am not under the impression that it's a term in common use.
A friend of mine came to me tonight stuck in a mental spiral of concern and guilt I recognized as the state of someone being overwhelmed by the Empath's Dilemma, and I swooped in with my own concern, to reassure and comfort them, to shake off the undeserved guilt and help them toward a mental condition from which they would, hopefully, be able to get a decent night's rest.
And then they asked me, "How did you get through this sort of a dark night of the soul [...] whenever that night was for you?"
This is my answer:
I constructed a question. A scenario that might be put to people by which to judge their preferences in a pinch, like the old standard one about pulling a switch to route a train onto a track where it would hit only one person rather than five.
The scenario was this:
Imagine that you are a prisoner in a terrible prison. In your current position, you are almost completely helpless. Your contact with the other prisoners is minimal, and tightly governed. You cannot, now, save them... But you do know that they suffer. If you don't cover your ears at night, you can hear them screaming. If you don't turn your eyes away, you can see how the guards habitually beat and torture and belittle them.
Taken metaphorically, this is not far from the truth.
Your own condition is good compared to most of the other prisoners, but very bad compared to the free citizens who live outside of it. You do not, now, have the power to do anything that would stop the atrocities that happen here. You think you could grow to have more power, though, after your sentence is up, assuming you actually are released. And assuming you survive that long.
But you also know, because the prison is still here, that the free citizens, who have so much more power than you do, have found other things to do with their time than campaign and publicize and get this prison torn down or reformed. A lot of them don't even acknowledge that it's a real problem. You might worry that you will become like them, after you're free. Stuff all your memories of this place into a bag in a closet in the back of your mind and never dare to touch it, because it would hurt.
Well then? Every night, you effectively have two options.
A: You lay down with your ears uncovered. You listen to the screams, and harden your resolve that you will never, ever, allow yourself to forget or to deny what has happened here... but at the cost of your sanity, and a greater risk of not being able to hold a job or garner any respect after you leave.
Or B: You cover your ears, you close your eyes, you do whatever it takes to swallow your meals and nourish yourself despite the sickening surroundings, and you push away the pain and the fear enough to survive another day in as healthy a state as you can. Maintaining your self and your capacity, but increasing the risks of falling into a habit of denial and inaction.
Which one will you choose?
That's the Empath's Dilemma, the way I see it. People we call empaths will choose A far more often. Some will choose A any time they think they can do so without the pain killing them.
I contemplated this long enough to realize that neither extreme was "right". Given a choice between someone who always chooses A, and someone who always chooses B, neither one is necessarily better. This may be difficult to accept, because it's a very emotional question, and it can be hard to imagine, if you are particularly driven to choose A, for example, that someone could choose B and it wouldn't make them a worse person than you are. Knowing whether someone is more driven to choose A or to choose B could, however, offer some useful insight into that person's strengths and weaknesses.
The optimal solution does something vaguely analogous to maximizing the area of a rectangle which is SANITY units wide and COMMITMENT units long. If you let your sanity fall to zero, your capacity to help anyone will also be zero. If you let your commitment fall to zero, your willingness to help anyone will also be zero. In either case, the prison stands just as tall, and the suffering goes on.
So, sacrifice enough of your comfort to maintain your commitment, until your commitment is sufficient to fuel the most effective actions you could take. Do not sacrifice more.
Sacrifice enough of your emotional urgency to maintain your sanity and health, until they are sufficient to support the most effective actions you could take. Do not sacrifice more.
And recognize that knowing what the perfect balance is functionally impossible. There are just too many variables in the environment. Calibrating your model to be more accurate is a fantastic excuse to be neither properly maintaining your self NOR acting effectively in the moment.
Err on the side of overestimating the cost of tweaking the model if you possibly can (because you will probably fail in the attempt anyway), and if you find yourself outside the prison, if you see an opportunity to act which is likely to help and unlikely to hinder, heavily weight your preferences toward taking it, rather than trying to make sure you should. Quantity over quality; it is a provably better cognitive habit to make many mistakes than to wait until you have a perfect plan.
The time that passes as you do things other than actively and visibly and tangibly fighting death and suffering in all its forms is a sunk cost. It is a fallacy that will drive you into irrationality and error to weight it so highly that it outweighs all the factors you actually do have any control over in your decision making.
The only choices you can really make are between the opportunities you actually see, to influence outcomes you actually have the power to affect.
And, actions taken to sustain yourself, your life, your sanity and in fact also your morale, are instrumentally necessary to preserving your own capacity to fight death and continue to fight death into the future.
You cannot stand to fight if you have laid down to die with the first of your fellow-soldiers to fall, out of compassion or love for them.
So get up. I will not tell you not to remember the dead and the dying.
But we fight for the living.
I decided to borrow that line from a video game trailer. It's been used in other contexts as well, but this is the one where I personally first saw it. a damn good line, in my opinion. Hell, it's a damn good motivational video.
I would not have communicated it in quite these words when I first built the question over five years ago. I had not even read HPMoR up to the Stanford Prison Experiment arc (where a call-to-action is realized in pretty similar terms) yet at that time.
If I had, I probably would not have constructed the question this way, as it would have felt like a form of plaigiarism.