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Empathy works. It always does.

How can you empathize with a psychopath?


Repulsed. Shocked. Disturbed. Terrified.

the act of killingI watched the trailer to the documentary “The Act of Killing”. It starts with one of the killings Anwar Congo and his death squad committed during the Suharto extermination of alleged communists in the sixties. You see and hear the terror of those who are about to be burned alive. I felt no less repulsed and horrified when I realized that these are not actual killings, but enactments in a studio with actors who survive, staged by the killers.

I felt most shocked that the killers seem quite satisfied and pleased with themselves and their acts. No shred of remorse, guilt, or shame. They don’t see themselves as war criminals. “That term is defined by the winners. And we won,” as one of the killers says.

I feel appalled. How is it possible that these killers walk around happily and at peace after killing thousands of men, women, children and elderly? How don’t they have a troubled conscience? They cannot be human, they must be psychopaths without feelings, and we have nothing in common.

When Joshua Oppenheimer, the director, started filming he pledged to approach his subjects without judgments, even though he judged their killings. He was committed to approach the killers with kindness, and an openness to connect. It was a challenge for him. Many times he had to retreat from the project to self-connect and self-care, before he was able to engage them with at least some kind of basic kindness. He had many moments where he wanted reassurance he isn’t like them.

Till he realizes the difference is only relative, not absolute. That he -fortunately- had never been in a situation where he would find out that he could commit the same horrendous acts. That he always had enough support and creativity to meet his needs in more wholesome ways.

What if Oppenheimer is right? That I have -deep down- the same seeds that could bring me to commit the most sadistic acts, maybe even with joy and delight? Seeds that haven’t been watered yet, that are still held in a container of mindfulness and compassion, that lay dormant in my subconscious, and yet… the same seeds that triggered the killers to commit those crimes?

I pray it isn’t true.

And I know it is.

If I want to contribute to a world with respect for life, I need to look into both the wholesome and unwholesome seeds in my subconscious. So that I can take good care of the unwholesome ones, transform them into wholesome ones, and hopefully never act with sadism.

You want to embrace your unwholesome seeds with mindfulness and compassion? Contact me 512-589-0482 for a free discovery session to see how I can help.

This is the second blog around “us-versus-them”. Next week I intend to write about protective use of force.

Elly van Laar

Author: Elly van Laar

I am a coach. I specialize in helping mission-driven professionals bring their lives into balance. I have a Master's degree in Political Science, Leiden University, the Netherlands. I'm currently in an ICF-coaching certification program. I love meditation, walking, gardening, biking, and hanging out with family and friends.

2 thoughts on “How can you empathize with a psychopath?

  1. Hi Elly, you asked what I might like you to write about so here I am scrolling through what you have already written – a treasure trove it will take me a while to read 🙂
    This post grabbed my attention in the moment as I am reading Hanah Arendt’s *Banality of Evil* What struck her re the Eichmann trial was how very ordinary he was – not at all a match for the image of someone responsible for the murders of thousands of innocents that Arendt had created in her mind. It seems that this documentary may be another attempt to show us that maybe the potential for evil lies within ordinary folk? I will try to find this documentary, it is something I want to explore further.
    Also interesting for me is that your nation executes it’s own citizens (actually it’s deeply shocking to me, not in a judgy way, my nation (Australia) also inflicts suffering and harm, just not that particularly direct one). Ayway, I guess that means there are people in the States whose day job is killing other Americans. Maybe they get up in the morning, have breakfast with their families, drop little Sam off at day care, arrive at work and find *their* park is taken, find another park, check in at work and bitch about the parking situation, walk to their office and … kill another human being… That in itself is surely sufficient argument against capital punishment – that it dehumanises the executioners?
    Anyway sorry for this long and rambling comment, writing this really helps me grapple with it all, to come to some understanding. Thanks.

    • Dear Rowena, thanks for your elaborate response, which meet my needs for understanding and connection.
      I feel inspired by you reading Hanah Arendt’s “Banality of Evil”, which I still want to read. I completely get your shock that the USA still executes inmates. Texas -where I live- is the front runner in the executions and death penalty. I am born and raised in the Netherlands -which has more of a restorative justice system- and am still shocked and sad about this punitive system. I sit as silent witness when someone is executed. Not because I think it makes a difference, but because I want to practice compassion and empathy with everyone involved, including the executioner.
      Research shows that being an executioner has the highest job risk. People who execute (which you voluntary sign up for) have the highest rates of depression, suicide, divorce, domestic violence, health risks.
      I will sit with this, and reflect how I want to approach this topic, and then write about it.
      Thanks again for your quick response. I feel excited, because I value connection, understanding and shared values.
      Take care.

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