How do we encourage empathy?
Usually I spend a lot of time reading stuff, and then I get outraged or otherwise respond internally to something I read. I take notes on the article, in an email to myself, and that later becomes a blog post.
[Aside: if you haven't seen Psych yet, please take a look, especially if you like hilarious and snarky references to the 1980's, but even if you don't. Season 4 episode 1 is a great starting point. Netflixxable.]
Even so, here we are, friend, and I wanted to write this morning, and you’re here already.
So I will share some thoughts I had when I took a brisk walk last night, to try to get rid of the big Christmas dinner feeling. Big dinner, not big feeling, although the feeling was pretty big too.
I was thinking about gratitude, for even having the opportunity to have such a nice meal to share with my family, and then I started thinking about what I consider the flip side of gratitude, namely empathy. I was wondering, how do we encourage empathy and gratitude in ourselves and in others? In, say, our children?
First, who cares?
Lots of people have been writing about empathy lately, how rich people have less empathy, and the failure of technical fields to encourage empathy. We also seem to have connected gratitude with happiness.
Personally I’m pretty convinced these are both critical feelings both for relating to others on an individual basis and on thinking about public policy and income inequality, which I think about quite a bit. So I’m game.
Second, why those two things?
It occurred to me as I was walking that maybe other people don’t think of gratitude and empathy together. But for me there’s a pretty straight line from empathy to gratitude, and it’s not all that easy to get to gratitude some other way.
Some people write about how to raise your kids to be grateful, for example, and they often suggest that we ask our kids to think of things for which they are grateful, say before bed every night.
This strikes me as hollow. I don’t think people can just conjure up gratitude. Instead they will learn to list things which they are lucky to have, but being fortunate is not the same as feeling grateful. And listing a bunch of things you are fortunate to have can backfire, I’d imagine. I’m not into this plan.
But maybe I’m wrong, or maybe I misunderstood the plan. Readers, is there a connection for you too between empathy and gratitude, and is there a way to engender gratitude directly?
So, what about empathy?
Do you remember how much you hated your father growing up? I do. And I also remember the time, or times, that I realized I had the same tendencies inside myself. I could be just like that guy, I realized. FUCK.
And that’s when I realized I had a choice. I could either hate myself as much as I hated him, or I could forgive both of us. Or actually there are more options, including things like continuing to hate him and ignoring those same qualities in myself, but I try not to be too hypocritical.
Anyhoo, the point is that I forgave both of us. I empathized with his weaknesses, which were mine as well. And that is how I empathize with people in general, because I realize I am one mistake away from fucking up, or having too much debt, or being homeless or jobless.
And by the way, I even have made those mistakes, or many of them anyway, but I’ve been bailed out because of friends, or because I’m educated, or because I’m white. I am largely insulated from my bigger mistakes, but when I see someone in pain, it’s my pain, because it could be me.
And of course we have empathy for people because they are unlucky, like if someone they love gets sick, or if they themselves get sick and this ridiculous health system lands them in deep debt, or if they are at the wrong place at the wrong time, like if someone gets into an accident or if they are born into poverty.
But we also have empathy in recognition of making super shitty decisions and even of being cruel. Because cruelty is a weakness of ours too.
For me at least, gratitude comes right after that. It’s actually just a continuation of the feeling of empathy. I am grateful to my friends, and I am grateful for my freedom, and I am grateful I have not been in a situation recently where I’ve been overly tempted to wield my personal arsenal of evil weapons.
So, how do we encourage empathy and/or gratitude?
That’s the thing, I don’t know. The truth is, I’m not sure how it can be done without going through this whole process of hating something, then recognizing it inside yourself, and then coming to terms with it kindly. That’s pretty much all I got.
And so instead of asking my kids to be grateful, I just try to do my best to role model empathy and gratitude myself, in my words and actions and especially in my inactions.