One of the dafter pronouncements by a psychologist I have read – in a profession not always noted for its common sense – was from the woman who wrote in The Psychologist
magazine that her dearest wish was to have total empathy with others. This only indicates that she didn't understand the concept, for having total empathy with others would drive you totally mad in a week. This is because we confuse empathy with kindness.
As an example, a friend sent me one of those personality questionnaires that proliferate on the internet. My own (honest) answers suggested I am kinder than 95% of the population, which is perhaps surprising as I dislike a significant number of human beings and probably prefer animals to people.
For empathy doesn't actually mean that you like
people, it means that you can't help feeling what another person is feeling, even if they are your worst enemy. I worked once for a self-professed psychopath who would happily destroy anyone she regarded as a professional threat, yet when her husband left – unsurprisingly – I couldn't help feeling her (very temporary) grief.
I loathe and detest Boris Johnson, yet if he turned up on the doorstep having been involved in a car crash, I would have to patch him up and look after him (although once he had gone I would be quite happy to express my thoughts on Twitter about his bad driving).
So, in my view, empathy is hardly a virtue and can often be a real nuisance. For some reason – it may be to do with our biochemistry – some of us have an unusual ability to experience what others are feeling, regardless of our rational thoughts about them. At its worst, in my case, this can even apply to objects. I have old clothes that really ought to go to the charity shop but they are still in the cupboard because I don't like to hurt their feelings by indicating that they are past their sell-by date.
Venturing onto ScotRail again after a couple of years' absence was surprisingly painless, unlike my experience with Stagecoach, who had cancelled the bus I had intended to catch to the train station and didn't update their website (yes, we all know there is a pandemic on, but really).
However, returning from Perth on a relatively crowded train, I was joined in the seat opposite by a woman with no face mask in sight. She spent most of the time chatting away on her mobile to a friend, explaining she had forgotten to get off at the right stop so would have to stay on the train and retrace her journey, something she didn't seem too anxious about, as anxiety might have explained why she had forgotten her mask. For once, my empathy was in short supply and I managed to move to a seat away from her.
But what is the correct etiquette in these circumstances? She wasn't wearing any badge or lanyard to indicate she had a medical reason for not wearing a mask, and she looked pretty fit and healthy (she was reading a horse riding magazine which suggested she was probably active), so should I have challenged her with 'excuse me, have you forgotten something?'. She didn't look like the sort of person who would thump me for questioning her, but I suppose there is that reluctance, common to English people as well as Scots, to make personal remarks unprompted.
English relations visiting have said how much safer they feel in Scotland, for apparently many people south of the border have become blasé about most aspects of anti-virus protection, possibly assuming that if they have had the two vaccinations they are safe, which of course they aren't. Maybe Professor Seaton's lucid and sensible comments in this journal have helped to ensure that generally here, people are more sensible.
Dirty old town?
Having also revisited Aberdeen for the first time in a while, it's clear to see why the Banchory teuchters are reluctant to go there. There's a TV programme called something like 10 Years Younger in a Week
, where people who have had a hard time and haven't looked after themselves are given an expert makeover (no, I haven't applied – yet!).
If this approach was appropriate for cities, Aberdeen should be first in the queue. It's a potentially beautiful town but now is dirty, dishevelled and downright unloved. The only buildings that seem important are shiny, new and boring, whereas the beautiful, quirky granite ones are left to deteriorate. The main Union Street (that name will be changed come independence) has similar problems to any big city in retaining active retail premises, but somehow Aberdeen is sadder and more down at heel than most.
Some years ago, Dundee was the city no-one wanted to visit, yet it has done wonders to rejuvenate itself and now looks loved and cared for, while Aberdeen has let itself go with a vengeance. Every city has its less salubrious bits, but they are usually balanced by the majority of the areas that are thoughtfully maintained.
One problem is that for years Aberdonians have deluded themselves that once oil in effect runs out, big oil companies will retain a presence in the city as it's midway between the USA and the East. Well they won't, and have never really cared about Aberdeen, apart from paying over the top salaries to folk who are just passing through. Perhaps that is part of the problem – that to care genuinely about a place, you have to be committed to living there for a significant period of time.
In the view of someone who has lived on its periphery for nearly 25 years, I'd say it's time for Aberdeen to diversify its economy. It used to be a well-loved seaside resort, for heaven's sake, as well as being the gateway to some of the most stunning scenery anywhere and a potential powerhouse of alternative energy sources. So come on Aberdonians – make your city look 10 years younger, maybe not in a week, but it's never too late to start.
Dr Mary Brown is a freelance education consultant