Empathy Is Complicated
Empathy has become a quality that so many people claim to have, but very few actually comprehend. It’s not about understanding the emotional burdens of the downtrodden — that’s easy. One does not have to be empathetic to feel a sorrowful connection to a starving orphan in Uganda. That only means you’re not an asshole… great, but not special.
Real empathy is about being able to identify with the feelings of everyone, which is really hard. It’s about granting legitimacy and validity to those that don’t seem to deserve it. The medical industry gets this. A very lovely nurse once explained to me that rule #1 of the healthcare business is that you just can’t tell a patient that they’re overreacting. Whatever pain or anxiety they’re feeling is completely real to them, even if it appears routine or unsubstantial to you. Thus, doctors and nurses everywhere are patiently nodding their heads, taking as much complaining and abuse as they can, and doing their best to mitigate suffering and find solutions. If there’s a better metaphor for true empathy in a broader sense, I can’t think of it.
So extrapolate that idea into everyday life. For me, and I hate to say this, but I often find myself feeling surrounded by idiots. Watching television, stuck in traffic, waiting in lines, on the internet… surrounded, everywhere. I’m working on that nasty disposition, and part of that is acknowledging that I have no idea what compels people to be who they are, and even if I did, it wouldn’t matter. Their feelings and beliefs might be ridiculous and misguided, in my opinion, but they remain a simple product of life experiences, random biological happenings, relationships, education, and so on — just like you and me. So who is more real?
True empathy requires work. Rolling your eyes or beeping the horn in traffic is actually effortless and inconsequential. Being patient and letting the gazillions of asshole drivers out there have their way — that’s hard work. When a friend needs empathy, “let me know what I can do,” or “I’ve been there before,” doesn’t mean shit, because it requires no effort or understanding. Unless you’re Mother Theresa, empathy should feel like work, even if it’s work you want. Making a joke, buying a little gift, cooking a meal, or just listening to complaints and acknowledging that, yes, everyone is perfectly entitled to their own feelings… that’s the work of empathy, and it makes a difference.
Also, don’t confuse the work of empathy with the work of fixing problems. This is a classic issue in relationships between men and women (which I, a very well-intentioned “fixer,” can never seem to stop myself from doing). Generally, women tend to want to express their feelings and have their male counterpart be empathetic, whereas men often mistake this expression as a request for help. Helping is not a way of expressing that one understands, but rather a nice way of saying, “I could handle this if I were you.” You just have to be supportive and patient. That’s tricky, but so important.
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© 2012, Ian Mathias
Beeping your horn in traffic is a really bad example. Lets say someone is a new driver, or a driver from another culture. This person is confused about some idiosyncrasy of traffic laws, and thus drives in a manor that is dangerous to others purely out of naivete. The third or fourth time someone lays on their horn in that situation though, might actually prompt them to look up the law and drive in a way which is less dangerous.
There is a multitude of ways to use your horn as well. In Asia I commonly heard drivers in areas with less defined rules of the road use horns in a ‘you might not expect me to do this, so I’m making sure you know I’m here’ way.
Let’s say someone has their first bout of narcolepsy as a middle aged adult (happens frequently), maybe some day you interpret their driving as just being an ‘asshole driver’ and instead of laying on your horn… you decide you’re going to be ‘zen’ about it and humanity losses that chance to wake them up before they wrap around a tree.
Using your horn in traffic isn’t “actually effortless and inconsequential”. It involves physical effort, and can have positive consequences even when they are unintended.
I’ll assume you mean laying on your horn while stuck in bumper to bumper traffic even though it has no possibility to change the situation, but only because it’s the most generous interpenetration, not because it’s actually what you have written.
There’s nothing wrong with using your horn, there is something mildly wrong with using your horn purely as a mechanism or vector to express your anger with no positive intentions… Yet, even that is fleeting, if it was solely a manifestation of anger at some ‘asshole driver’ who’s actually nodding out at the wheel which causes them to understand consciously that they should pull over…. I find that to be a net win for humanity.
Driving is dangerous, and they make horns to be used to lessen that danger. Maybe Sidehartha never used one out of anger, but that’s also because he had a habit of sitting under trees meditating… not driving a 2 ton hunk of metal at 90 mph on highways with 16 wheelers, trusting his life in the health and driving ability of strangers.
Fair enough. I’m still trying to beep less, though… it’s pretty abrasive. Might be a cultural thing, too. Beeping in NYC puts out a very different message than the same honk in Portland, OR.
Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. -Plato
Love great quotes… thanks.
Cultural or not, it stems from a shallow place.
I’ve always felt empathy in certain situations is impossible. No matter how hard you try, you are never going to understand what the parent of a disabled child is going/has been through unless you go through itself. Likewise for a victim of child/sexual abuse. At a certain point, you just have to stand back and say “I’m not going to even pretend to know what you are going through, but I am here if you need me.” Damn straight empathy is complicated.
This post sounds alot like something I would say. I’m learning this lesson right now, and it’s a hard one. Some of these comments (specifically on other posts) are nitpicking your statements apart and I just want you to know that we’re on the same page.
Check out some of my poems, if you’d like (http://sieveandsand.com).
Oh the crazy honking in Iraq and Saudi Arabia….but its completely from the drivers being assholes. Cultural differences…..eh..maybe. After 23 countries I find it to definately be one of those “Hey, move” type of reactions.
“which I, a very well-intentioned “fixer,” can never seem to stop myself from doing”
Something else I am also trying to stop myself from doing. I’ve just finished reading the whole thing and just wanted to say: thank you so much for writing all of this. Brilliant advice, put so simply and eloquently. Thank you.
That’s nice of you Luke, thanks for reading.
This is a fabulous read. I just blogged about empathy today in fact. Amazing this came from a guy – how did you know all our feminine secrets!