Diane Ackerman wrote a lovely (delightful actually) book called Cultivating Delight. It was a memoir of sorts, but, subtitled A Natural History of My Garden, it was also a garden book. I’m pulling from that title for today’s post, Cultivating Empathy: My Journey to Understand.
By the way, for clarity, I’m defining empathy as
the ability to walk in the shoes of another person, to live their life momentarily, to understand the world inside their head.
I got thinking about the power of empathy last month when, in the weeks following the Parkland, Florida shooting, I saw a few facebook video posts from gun owners who had destroyed their assault rifles or turned them in. What came through to me watching those videos was EMPATHY. What else would motivate someone to change their thinking so dramatically?
Here’s the first one I saw, with Scott-Dani Pappalardo. His video is credited with persuading Aaron LaRoque to do the same thing. And then there’s this video from The Washington post for those who want more.
That’s what we need more of, I said to myself. We need more empathy around this issue. If more gun owners felt more empathy with those who have suffered so because of guns, we’d turn the corner on this current impasse. That was the spirit in which I began this post.
In early 2017 I did a ten-week series on civil discourse, what I’d found so lacking in my country following the surprise election results. Facetiously entitled LEAPFROG, the E stood for empathy.
I began by reading that post, but soon realized there were important ideas about empathy I wanted to add. And, as my subtitle announces, some aspects of empathy I needed to understand better.
Empathy has been at the core of social movements throughout history.
That’s first. The abolitionist movement on both sides of the “pond” came to mind immediately. The trade union movement that did away with child labor and other societal ills was built on the widespread ability of others to empathize with the plight of the worker.
We don’t find that so much any more. And, as a result, membership in unions has declined considerably over the past thirty years. Civil rights, #MeToo, and now the burgeoning #EnoughIsEnough and #OneLess movements have all benefited from the ability of human beings to empathize with another’s struggle.
Scientists have identified “mirror neurons” in the brain that are key in our ability to feel what another is actually experiencing.
Have you ever seen someone hit their head on the open cabinet door?
Have you seen a carpenter miss the nail and flatten his finger with his hammer?
Has your child ever gotten stung by a bee or bitten by a dog?
All these are instances I recall where I FELT the pain that other person was experiencing. Can you relate? That’s your mirror neurons kicking in.
A lifetime ago, when I was a PhD student finding my way in the political science world, one of the running theories on human behavior was called Rational Choice. It held, essentially, that we, the rational individuals that we are, make choices based on reason and a clear “what’s in it for me” mind set.
Survival, according to the Rational Choice theorists, is an individual endeavor.
I don’t hear that talk much anymore. (True, I’m not roaming the halls of any PhD program any longer). Not that some don’t still live by that credo, but a new theory has emerged. Social scientists now believe we are wired not so much for individual advancement, but for empathy and social cooperation. “Homo empathicus,” we are now called. Cute.
In short, they propose that our survival depends on our ability to connect with other human beings.
(For those interested, google “mirror neurons and empathy” and you’ll find information on the neuroscience of it. I’ll spare the rest of you.)
Here are two tenets of the homo empathicus view:
1. The capacity for empathy is innate.
2. Empathy is good for us. Those reporting high feelings of empathy are also those who also report feeling happier, more generous, more communicative, and who make better leaders.
I see pockets of empathy here and there, …
… like with those facebook videos above. But too often the people crossing my path make assumptions, feel superior, judge, and blame. And this has begun to bother me.
Seems to me empathy is the opposite of finger pointing, of feeling superior and all the rest.
Given this, I asked, “What’s happened?” Where has all the empathy gone? (Long time passing . . .)
How do we increase our capacity for this empathy we so admire? We cultivate it. We practice it. We pay attention.
Curiosity, Compassion, and Courage
Curiosity is the foundation of And So It Goes, where curiosity about those “others” is constantly advocated. I try, in these weekly blog posts to raise awareness of the many ways that we are saddled with preconceived notions that we’ve just never explored, never even thought about, and to pair our curiosity with compassion.
It’s romantic to be curious about “others” of distant lands and cultures. But what of those “others” in your own backyard?
Who are the nearby strangers with whom you might engage in a bit of cultivated curiosity? The Native American adage about “walking a mile in his shoes” comes to mind. With which “other” would you welcome an introduction?
Is it easier to empathize with a struggling soccer mom or a struggling welfare mom? Would you invite your neighborhood Joe six-pack to your next backyard barbeque? Is there a religious fundamentalist in your neighborhood from whom you’ve kept your distance? If you are a climate change activist, can you imagine what it might be like to be an oil company executive?
Can you try on someone else’s life? Can you walk a mile in their shoes?
We don’t need to move in with these folks as our undercover journalists did here; the list of a few of their books is in the pull down window.
A few examples of walking a mile, taking anywhere from six weeks to a year and a half.
Black Like Me, the 1961 book by white journalist John Howard Griffith of his six weeks traveling as a black man (he turned his skin black with the aid of medication) in the deep south.
Soul Sister by Grace Halsell, (who also did Besse Yellowhair, Halsell’s story of her time living as a Navajo) came out in 1969.
Hunter Thompson’s 1966 Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga.
Norah Vincent’s Self-made Man in 2006,
To take on the role of the other requires the ability to listen and active listening is not easy.
I started my LEAPFROG series with listening. You can read that one here. Too often listening is merely the means by which we identify our turn or figure out how we can win the argument. That obsessive need to be right messes us up in so many ways.
Remember high school debate club? There you HAD TO argue the opposite of what you believed. And you had to do it effectively. Ever go to marriage counseling where you had to role play your spouse? It’s hard, but it can be done.
I think what makes empathy so difficult is that it often requires us to take off our masks, reveal our true feelings, and not react while the other person speaks. It taps our vulnerability. But vulnerability is the foundation of intimacy, it is how we humans make connection.
That’s where courage comes in.
Can one be “too empathetic?” We’ll look at that in two weeks.
NOTE: Since I first published this post, I’ve discovered a website that helps teachers foster empathy among their students. It’s called path2empathy dot com. Check it out.
How about you? How do you practice empathy?
NEXT WEEK: Earth Day 2018