Several weeks ago I watched the Rachel Maddow’s show about Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. Shortly into the account, three things became crystal clear to me. One was that McVeigh’s disorganized family of origin made him greatly susceptible to Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The second thing that became clear was that his experiences of killing enemy combatants in the army damaged his brain even further – he reportedly watched through his M40 sniper scope as a single bullet exploded the heads of two Iraqi soldiers during the Gulf War. (Research suggests that the brains of soldiers who actually kill people become much more disorganized than the brains of those who come home wounded in war).

The third thing that became clear to me from the TV special was: there but for the grace of God go I.

As a teenage loner, susceptible to PTSD myself, I was slated to be drafted into the army. During the physical, I was diverted to an examining psychiatrist who determined me unfit for service for several reasons, probably chief among them being, at the time I owned a dozen guns. I had also been arrested for hunting in a public park (I currently own no guns, and haven’t for decades). In retrospect, I was clearly on a collision course with what University of British Columbia psychologists Del Paulus and Kevin Williams have identified as psychology’s Dark Triad.

The Dark Triad

The Dark Triad describes three different personality types: narcissists, Machiavellians and psychopaths. Narcissists tend to be vain, conceited and selfish, and aggressive in their pursuit of success and glory. They tend to be indifferent to the suffering of others, as exemplified by Tim McVeigh telling the victims of his bombing they needed to “get over it.” Machiavellians tend to be extremely self-interested, flattering and manipulative, constantly looking out for Number One. Machiavelli himself has been described as a “teacher of evil,” counseling those in power to rule through the use of cruelty, violence, fear and deception. Finally, psychopaths tend to be callous and arrogant, deceitful and cunning. They demonstrate little interpersonal affect and often act on impulse. Timothy McVeigh could fit into all three categories, and when I was of military draft age, so could I. Except for one significant difference …

Somewhere along the way I managed to get the empathy and compassion circuits in my brain activated and hardwired into the network. I distinctly recall the moment those circuits went online. I was in my early twenties when, seemingly by chance, I picked up a book by J. Krishnamurti – Think on These Things. Krishnamurti’s teachings seemed to instantly fire up some dormant neural wiring in my brain. Compassion and empathy apparently super-charged my dopamine receptors and have guided my life’s direction ever since. Caring for others (and deliberately including myself in that circle of caring – has grown to feel increasingly good in my body and brain. For the most part.

Compassion Caveats

In addition to whatever Dark Triad elements each of us might possess, compassion and empathy are necessary elements for living responsibly in the world in general, but they are crucial for effective parenting. There are however a few compassion caveats that I’ve borrowed from emotional intelligence expert, Daniel Goleman, which I think it might be useful to offer up here. Goleman, himself borrowing freely from facial coding expert Paul Ekman (upon whom the TV drama series Lie to Me is based), identifies three main ways we can empathize with others.

The first is cognitively. Cognitive empathy involves simply consciously knowing how another person might be feeling and what they might be thinking. This kind of empathy is somewhat removed, centered primarily in the left thinking brain, detached from own internal emotions.

The second type of empathy brings in the feeling brain, centered mostly in the right hemisphere. It generates “emotional empathy.” Recently discovered mirror neurons appear to be responsible for emotional empathy which allows us to actually feel the same emotions that others are feeling. Parents and caregivers who tend to be overly emotional in their empathy however, run the risk of “over-attuning” to other’s inner worlds. When that happens the result is often paralysis and/or psychological exhaustion, which often leads to parents and caregivers developing a sense of detachment. Detachment is not optimal for the care and feeding of young brains. It can lead to indifference, rather than what Goleman calls “well-calibrated caring.”

The third type of empathy is compassionate empathy. Compassionate empathy lets us feel right along with others. Ideally it finds us with enough internal neurological and biological resources to then be able to freely offer help. Compassionate empathy is often missing in business and government – signaling a clear lack of optimum neural integration. The government’s response to Hurricane Katrina and the financial crises generated by Wall Street banks have recently demonstrated a lack of compassionate empathy. It’s also often missing in parents who are overworked and underappreciated. And it was clearly missing in the mental makeup responsible for the Dark Triad in Timothy McVeigh. I thank my lucky stars I managed pretty early on to escape that fate.