Cultivating Empathy: My Journey to Understand

 

Thanks to Pinterest for the image.

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.

 

My thanks to Sharon Lippincott for suggesting and creating this cover for my series. I thank her also for the unexpected PhD she awarded me.

 

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.

 

Thanks to Pinterest for the image.

 

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.

[learn_more caption=”A few examples of walking a mile, taking anywhere from six weeks to a year and a half.”] These all fall under the “undercover journalism” genre.

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, [/learn_more]

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

35 Responses

  1. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    You get a PhD for research in my books, officially bestowed or not. I did not see the Facebook posting from gun owners who had destroyed their assault rifles or turned them in after the Parkland shooting. It’s a start, but I’m not sure frogs can leap far enough to trigger civil discourse in our current climate though public outcry, especially from our youth is starting to register.

    I just finished Laurie Buchanan’s new book The Business of Being.
    In it she pushes one step beyond the idea of empathy to include compassion. Listing the progression of pity–> sympathy–> empathy–> she notes the next level, one of compassion, “A feeling that gives rise to actions that alleviate others’ suffering regardless of how we feel.” That was a new thought for me too as I have believed that empathy is the ultimate emotion in identifying with another’s needs.
    Marian Beaman recently posted…Wordless Wednesday, April 2018My Profile

    • Laurie Buchanan
      | Reply

      Marian — As you know (I just finished visiting your blog) I’m in the fast and furious mode of playing “catching up” after having been teaching at the Writers’ Institute this past week. My eyes nearly popped out when I saw that you referenced The Business of Being. THANK YOU!
      Laurie Buchanan recently posted…The Write TrackMy Profile

  2. Janet Givens
    | Reply

    Hi Marian,

    Laurie’s book is sitting on my dining room table and I’m eager to get into it. And yes, I couldn’t agree more with her/your point on compassion. That really is the key, as I’ll touch on in the follow up — The Downside of Empathy.

    The “empathy researchers” have divided empathy into three types: emotional empathy, cognitive empathy, and compassionate empathy. I’ll get more into them in two weeks if I can find a study that convinces me it’s more than a semantic difference. I’m also getting caught up in studies about “empaths” — which remind me of what I used to call codependents. It’s still a WIP. A relatively easy one on Earth Day is next.

    Thanks for stopping.
    Janet Givens recently posted…Cultivating Empathy: My Journey to UnderstandMy Profile

  3. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    Following commentary by Daniel Goleman, the definitions referred to above appear on page 236 in Laurie’s book. (BTW, I think Laurie likes research as much as you do.)
    Marian Beaman recently posted…Wordless Wednesday, April 2018My Profile

  4. Susan Jackson
    | Reply

    So how do you decide on your different topics?

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      They come from many sources, Susan. I keep a special calendar just for my blog. I note holidays, historical dates, other topics that are time bound. This year I’ve paid particular attention to things that happened fifty years ago. That’s morphed into a monthly post.

      This week’s started, as I mentioned, from seeing a number of those Facebook videos and wondering if it was simply a matter of being able to empathize in the wake of the latest school shooting. Then, as they often do as I gather information, it veered off into a life of its own. I’m still toying with it’s partner, The Downside of Empathy. But in between we have Earth Day. A particularly important celebration this year given all the environmental damage that’s being done in the name of …. there I go again.

      Thanks for asking.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Cultivating Empathy: My Journey to UnderstandMy Profile

  5. Tim Fearnside
    | Reply

    Janet – great post. I read it this morning, and it’s been bouncing in and around my brain all day. In fact, it may even inspire me to dust off my own moldy blog and try to congeal some of the thoughts it’s brought to mind. One of the biggest challenges for me over the past year and a half — and before that, really — has been trying to come to grips with and reconcile the apparent lack of empathy I’ve witnessed from people I’ve known all my life, who I always believed (or wanted to believe) were kind and decent people. It has eaten at me, at times saddened me, and has challenged my very faith in humanity. It’s also, I think, at the core of what has gone wrong in America as well as what we need to do in order to fix it. Your post has given me some possible insights. Thanks for the inspiration :). – T

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thank you, Tim; you have made my day. I look forward to reading what you come with.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Cultivating Empathy: My Journey to UnderstandMy Profile

    • Susan Jackson
      | Reply

      I find that so sad, while life has changed the last couple years in the US I am lucky that my friends are still empathetic, at least that hasn’t changed.

  6. Kate Pill
    | Reply

    As always, a thoughtfully written piece. I look forward to your posts 🙂

  7. Ally Bean
    | Reply

    This post is like you’ve been living inside my mind this week. I’ve been musing on empathy, something that comes to me naturally. I’ve also been reviewing in my mind the four types of listening that I learned in grad school. Then to top it off, I’ve been thinking about Linda Ellerbee who used to say “so it goes.”

    In other words, what you’ve written here is tripping me out.

    That being said, thanks for the information here. I like the term “Homo empathicus.” I’d love to see that our societal norm, but realize that people are lazy and hate comes easy, while learning + love take more effort.
    Ally Bean recently posted…No Salt For You: A Circular Dinnertime Conversation Between The Married PeopleMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      That is so cool to hear, Ally, just like your blog posts. So very creative. Thank you for swinging by. I met Linda Ellerbee once; she was covering Michael Dukakis in the 1988 campaign. Met her at a stop at our local airport. She had REALLY bad chapped lips (funny what one remembers) but was good to talk to. We were all waiting for the “show” to begin.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Cultivating Empathy: My Journey to UnderstandMy Profile

  8. Elaine Mansfield
    | Reply

    Thank you, Janet. What a great post. I’m in awe of those who make a career out of empathy, such as the nurses at hospice. It’s clear we can’t survive without empathetic actions from others, beginning with mothering figures–and this makes the present political climate hard to endure. The body politic has lost its sense of compassionate caring and responsibility for those who struggle.

    I find it tricky to imagine I can truly know what someone else is feeling, so I think of empathy as coming through my lens and filter. Yes, I flinch when the hammer misses its mark, but I don’t get the physical damage. Active Listening is an essential skill for empathy, and deafness makes this a challenge. I can only listen in an environment where there’s no background noise. We live in a noisy world. Speaking of empathy, I’m grateful when people help me hear and listen by being aware of the environment. I also ask for help.

    I didn’t know you had a Ph.D. in political science. I was a political science major as an undergraduate during the Vietnam War and focused on China and Southeast Asia. The 1960s were another hot time in the political world as we protested the Vietnam War.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hello Elaine and thank you so much for your comments here. First, for the record, I never completed my PhD, much as I’ve always coveted having one. I spent four years there and was nearing my COMPS when my family began to implode. I had to turn my attention elsewhere and just never got back. Thought I would when I took the job at Penn, but it was no longer as primal to me I guess.

      I’ll think of your comment about hospice nurses (I sing in a hospice choir you know, so have met many caregivers) as I write the follow up to this post: the downside of empathy. Burnout is one issue.

      So many good points here. Come for tea sometime, OK?
      Janet Givens recently posted…Cultivating Empathy: My Journey to UnderstandMy Profile

  9. susan scott
    | Reply

    Thanks Janet, a very thought provoking post. I’ve been thinking lately of the demise of social discourse, good challenging debate, listeners who really hear what the other is saying. Both my sons are politically aware and active. I was reminded of a post my younger son wrote a while ago about walking in the shoes of the other, when racism was at its peak – and watching the current news here in South Africa, I often wonder if I too, were I in the shoes of the other who use violence in their protests, would do the same. If I felt totally cut off from the stream of life, hungry, not having a place to live, having children to feed, lack of empathy from others. I wonder if I would sell my soul ..Not a healthy form of protest for sure, but if civil discourse failed, I would take to the streets. May empathy be encouraged, compassion too and in terms of the 8 Noble Path may all suffering cease.
    susan scott recently posted…A – Z J Job and LilithMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Excellent points, Susan. I think you’ve really captured what I was aiming for. And I think it behooves us to get into those other shoes, no matter (and especially) that they are so unthinkable. I keep reminding myself that I will not be swallowed up by doing so. Thanks. (Btw, I can’t find F)
      Janet Givens recently posted…Cultivating Empathy: My Journey to UnderstandMy Profile

  10. Merril Smith
    | Reply

    Hi Janet–I wonder sometimes if it’s empathy, compassion, a belief in doing “what’s right,” or something else in some of the examples you cite. For example, some abolitionists were racists. So were they empathizing with the plight of slaves despite that? I think books such as Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (an autobiography) or the vastly popular Uncle Tom’s Cabin were attempts to make white readers identify with enslaved people. Perhaps there is something to what you mention in your reply to Marian about different types of empathy.
    Merril Smith recently posted…Here is Home: Haibun, NaPoWriMo, Day 12My Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Merril, I introduced the three types of empathy as an example of the direction current research is going. And I’m having a problem (at least) finding articles that don’t leave me thinking it’s merely semantics. I’ll say more about it (I expect) in Part II. Stay tuned.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Cultivating Empathy: My Journey to UnderstandMy Profile

  11. Fancy
    | Reply

    A lovely outlook on empathy. The Whitman quote is fab x

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hello “fancy paper blog” and welcome. That is a special quote, yes. But wait until we talk about the “downside of empathy.” It may not look so good then.

  12. Stevie Turner
    | Reply

    I imagine that people who own guns for reasons apart from shooting their fellow man would have more empathy than the other kind, and it’s the other kind who need the empathy…

  13. Michael
    | Reply

    Hi Janet, I really enjoyed reading your post. I agree we don’t practice enough empathy as we live in a world of instant gratification. Judging someone and nailing them on the immediate assumptions we come to seems so much the norm, especially on social media. I often see a person and wonder what they must be thinking. I see aggression as a means to cover up a person’s insecurities and that is sad when I think underneath there may be a person of considerable worth if they only were brave to step out from behind the mask they wear. For me I find it beneficial for my conversation to ask questions that show interest in what someone may be telling me. Anyway Janet thanks so much for this post, enjoyed it very much and its given me something to think about.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Stevie. Welcome and thanks for sharing your perspective here on the video I began with. You make a valid point, of course. But the reason I chose that video is because it was the reason I began thinking about empathy again and realized there was much more to say about it than I had on an earlier piece I did — the LEAPFROG series I linked need to. Hope that makes sense.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Cultivating Empathy: My Journey to UnderstandMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hello Michael. Thank you so much for your kind words. I’m glad the post resonated with you. On the 25th, we’ll be looking at “the downside of empathy.” I hope you like that one just as well.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Cultivating Empathy: My Journey to UnderstandMy Profile

  14. The Recipe Hunter
    | Reply

    Hi Janet

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and post with the Senior Salon. I am humbled and flattered to be able to read this and get to know you as well.

  15. Bernadette Laganella
    | Reply

    Thank you Janet for another very well written and thought out post. I have found that most emotions become stronger and more automatic with use. So, perhaps, all of us could seek out an instance every day to be empathetic. And mindfully each day make one less judgement. Just proposing……
    Bernadette Laganella recently posted…FEMINIST FRIDAY – 2018My Profile

  16. Laurie Buchanan
    | Reply

    Janet — After reading your thorough and well-researched post, along with the many comments you received, there’s a lot to mentally chew on. I’ve stirred the pot and am going to let it simmer on the back burner for a bit.
    Laurie Buchanan recently posted…The Write TrackMy Profile

  17. […] CULTIVATING EMPATHY: MY JOURNEY TO UNDERSTAND shared by Janet […]

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      I’m so pleased to be included in last week’s Senior Salon, Esme. Thank you.

  18. […] weeks ago, in Cultivating Empathy: My Journey to Understand, I shared this fairly common definition of […]

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