The Wonder and Misery of Empathy

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I think empathy is one of the most valuable skills or traits that we can master as human beings. It allows us to see beyond ourselves, and function as a group in a way that allowed society to develop. At some point, however, we started seeing empathy as a weakness. I’m not sure when it happened, or the exact mechanism that brought it about — but the almost magical ability for humans to internalize and understand the situations of others turned into a “hinderance” to the advancement of… something.

I hope it’s part of some strange societal pendulum that can swing back. Because when we value and understand the struggles of others, it helps us advance as a group, instead of just changing our relative success by pushing others down. A rising tide lifts all boats, and all that. But building a civilization is a long game, and especially short term, it doesn’t always make logical sense for the players to empathize with each other. Perhaps that’s why empathy is seen as a weakness, instead of the world-changing gift it is. Empathy makes us see each other as one, rather than focusing on our individual short games.

But Empathy Sucks

When I was around 8 years old, I visited my dad. He and my mom split up when I was very young, but when I turned 8 I got to fly out to Colorado and spend a few weeks with him. When I arrived, he gave me my very first pocket knife. Along with the coolest gift an 8 year old could imagine, came a sharpening stone and a lesson on how to keep the blades sharp. Because, I was sternly told, there’s nothing more dangerous than a dull knife.

I didn’t really get it at the time, but dull knives tend to slip when they don’t cut cleanly. And slipping means the potential for cutting yourself or others. The point was driven home the next week when my dad bought us both some beef jerky from a roadside stand. He opened his pocketknife, and cut off a piece of jerky, holding it between his thumb and blade, easily cutting off a piece to pop into his mouth. I’d been spending the bulk of every day whittling any stick I could find, and so my blade had gotten a bit dull. When I tried to cut a piece of jerky like he demonstrated, I had to sorta saw the blade back and forth toward my thumb while squeezing with all my might. Thankfully I only gave myself a little cut as I see-sawed the blade — but the salty beef jerky combined with the disappointed stare from my dad was enough drive the point home. It’s important to keep your tools sharp.

Empathy is much the same. When you keep your empathetic skills honed, it’s more likely that you’ll be affected by the suffering of others around you. A friend of mine is currently struggling with one of their teenage children. Behavioral issues, violence, and all the things you hope to never experience with your own children. As I try to empathize with this friend, it hurts. There’s very little I can do apart from offer a kind ear, and a safe place to scream — so by understanding and internalizing their pain, it causes me pain too.

Plus, when I look at the world as “us” rather than “me/them” — it forces me to make decisions, big and small, based on how they might benefit everyone. Or at least not negatively affect others just to provide personal benefit to me. And, if I stopped this blog post here, you might not see empathy as a weakness exactly, but at the very least a burden. And sure, in some respects, it hurts when you empathize the hurts of others. But the opposite is true too.

Empathy is a Ticket to Celebration Town

When you’re empathetic toward the situations of others, you suffer when they suffer, but you also win as they win. If you’ve ever secretly been jealous when someone you know has something incredible happen to them, that jealousy can flip to joy with a bit of empathy. Allow yourself to imagine the joy they’re experiencing, putting yourself in their shoes, and just like taking on other’s pain — you can share in their joy.

Watching these videos, it’s hard NOT to share in the joy of little black girls seeing The Little Mermaid look just like them.

The crazy thing is, empathy even works with your competitors. Did your team recently lose a hard fought battle against a team that was less skilled? That stinks. But imagine how those players feel winning a grueling competition against a team that was better than them?!? Don’t get me wrong, even the most empathetic among us still get frustrated, still get angry, and despise the injustice we see around us. Losing a game you should have won certainly seems like an injustice, and perhaps it is. But seeing each other as part of a bigger “us” rather than a separate “them” can take the sting out of such things a bit.

Look, Some People are Horrible

But Shawn, what about people who purposefully (and successfully!) get ahead by pushing others down? Why should we choose to empathize with others, when so many take advantage of people and then succeed when they do so?!? How can I “empathize joy” for someone who buys a yacht while their employees have to pee in Gatorade bottles because they’re not allowed time for bathroom breaks? Am I supposed to feel happy for the people who scam the elderly out of their money? For drug dealers with mansions squeezing addicts into crime?

Whoa there, Shawn’s cynical alter ego. No. No you’re not supposed to be happy about those things.

When you’re being empathetic, those ill-gotten gains are not joyful. In fact, I don’t think it’s real joy at all. The sort of happiness you get from greed and blind taking-at-the-expense-of-others is a pretty hollow brand of joy. If you’ve ever experienced joy while other people are also happy FOR you, it’s a night and day difference. No, in those frustrating circumstances above, we do empathize — but with the people who were swindled, or squeezed, or exploited. And we use that pain and frustration to make the world a little bit better for us as a group. We use that righteous anger to make systemic change which lifts everyone’s boats. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi:

That Was a Great Ending to the Blog Post. Why are You Still Writing?

I know, right? Ending with a Gandhi quote wraps it up nicely. I’m totally ruining the vibe. But, Gandhi didn’t actually say that. It’s a paraphrase. And it’s not a terrible paraphrase, to be honest. I think the mis-quoted quote is powerful and succinct. But it’s easy to miss the bigger point he was making. Here’s the actual quote, from which is where the paraphrase is taken:

“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.”

– Mahatma Gandhi

See, it was a call to action — but perhaps a bit more complex than just a motivational call to activism and policy changing. It certainly means those things, but Gandhi was clearly talking about changing ourselves. By changing who we are, and how we see the world (specifically for this blog post, how we see other people), we effectively change the world.

Yes, by changing ourselves we only change a very small part of the world as a whole. But we each have our sphere of influence. And kindness, empathy, and genuine care for others is the sort of fulfilling lifestyle that is hard to ignore. My hope is that it’s contagious. And unlike the sort of viral spread we’ve seen over the past few years, an epidemic of empathy is something we should never vaccinate against!

1 thought on “The Wonder and Misery of Empathy”

  1. “But we each have our sphere of influence. And kindness, empathy, and genuine care for others is the sort of fulfilling lifestyle that is hard to ignore. My hope is that it’s contagious.”
    It is and you are contagious too. I think in the businessworld they call it leading by example or some such. And you find it in music too.

    Like the Song from Frank Turner – Be more kind:
    “But when you’re out there floundering
    Like a lighthouse I will shine
    Be more kind, my friends, try to be more kind

    Like a beacon reaching out
    To you and yours from me and mine
    Be more kind, my friends, try to be more kind

    In a world that has decided
    That it’s going to lose its mind
    Be more kind, my friends, try to be more kind”

    have a great day


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