Saturday, December 14, 2013

There but for the grace of fate go I

Apparently, Scrooge is alive and well these days. He's not just a relic from Dickens' time, not just a character in a play we watch during the holidays. Witness these modern-day Scrooges, who say "Bah, humbug" in 21st Century language: Congresspeople who want to cut SNAP benefits, inexplicably wanting to save the government money by literally taking food from poor children's mouths. Congresspeople who have cut extended unemployment benefits from the latest budget agreement. Outgoing mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, whose policies favored the wealthy and made life much more difficult for the homeless and the poor. Readers of Nicholas Kristof's New York Times column, who responded to his recent writings about food stamp recipients, the uninsured and prison inmates with vitriol and accusations that it was all their fault and they deserved nothing from those who have successfully made their own lives more comfortable and well-functioning.

Perhaps these people who excoriate the poor are afraid that if they feel empathy for those who live in homeless shelters and get their food from food shelves and SNAP vouchers and free meals, they are admitting that these people are like themselves. So they have to set them up as different, as someone they could never be. But in fact, as Kristof says in a recent column, "let’s remember that the difference between being surrounded by a loving family or being homeless on the street is determined not just by our own level of virtue or self-discipline, but also by an inextricable mix of luck, biography, brain chemistry and genetics. For those who are well-off, it may be easier to castigate the irresponsibility of the poor than to recognize that success in life is a reflection not only of enterprise and willpower, but also of random chance and early upbringing." 

The New York Times had a powerful series just recently on a girl named Dasani, living with her parents and 7 siblings in one room in a particularly decrepit homeless shelter in New York. I defy you to read this series and not feel empathy for Dasani and her family. You will also feel deep admiration for her determination to succeed despite the tremendous odds stacked against her from the moment of her birth.

Which raises the question: What of those who strive as hard as they can, and yet fall behind? Before you write to your Congressperson to urge the government to cut off unemployment benefits to people who have been "living on the government dole for too long", please read about Yolanda Gray.

And then, turn off the cynicism and turn on the empathy for the down and out, whose ranks have been growing steadily in these times of increasing economic disparity.

We used to say, "There but for the grace of God go I." I don't think God had much to do with the fact that some of us live in a nice house and shop at Whole Foods, while other families live in a homeless shelter and shop with food stamps. Let's just call it fate. As Kristof says, "it’s callous for those born on second or third base to denounce the poor for failing to hit home runs."

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Age of Empathy?

My son Zack just shared this article with me. It's fascinating and thought-provoking, and highly recommended.

It's called, Six Habits of Highly Empathetic People, by Roman Krznaric. He is a founding faculty member of The School of Life in London and empathy advisor to organizations including Oxfam and the United Nations.

Mr. Krznaric contends that science is pointing us from many directions into an understanding of how human beings are actual hardwired to be empathetic, which makes a lot of sense, given that we are a highly socially-based species. He offers 6 ways that people can increase their empathy. Some are easier than others. Certainly, it's easier to talk to the person sitting next to us on the bus than it is to go live among people in a slum. But all of the ideas are well-worth exploring, however we can.

Do check out this article, with its accompanying videos.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Chris Kluwe: Punter, Pundit and Empathy Promoter

Chris Kluwe is the former Minnesota Vikings punter who became famous when he published an enraged response on Deadspin to a Maryland state legislator's demand to the Baltimore Ravens that they silence their player who had expressed support for same-sex marriage. His well-argued open letter, full of colorful and persuasive language, propelled him into working as a public spokesman for the "Vote No" effort to defeat the anti-same-sex marriage amendment in Minnesota last fall. The amendment was defeated.

For Kluwe, it all comes down to empathy. Plain, simple, basic empathy. As he said on Conan's talk show, "Societies that don't practice empathy, if you look at the historical record, every single civilization has failed. … And really, the root cause of that is not being able to put yourself in someone's shoes. It's empathy, it's treat other people the way you'd like to be treated." 

Now Kluwe has a new book of essays titled Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies. His subject matter ranges from human rights to philosophy to professional football and more. But he keeps coming back to the basic value of empathy, which is his guiding principle in life. In fact, one of the essays, called "All Your Bases", asserts that "the core of a stable society is a tripod", one of the legs of which is empathy: "Without its people possessing a fully developed sense of empathy, a society has no freedom. It is only through accepting the differences of others that a stable polity can develop." (p.60)

One of the most striking essays in the book is called "Somebody Think of the Children". (p 116-118) He talks about a Vote No gathering that he attended, and shares some of the thoughts he took away from it. First, he says, "Gay people are exactly the same as straight people. They laughed, they yelled, they congratulated me on the Vikings winning, ...they spilled beer on the floor and apologized for doing so. They asked for autographs, ...and introduced me to their significant others."  Kluwe goes on to say, "Gay people are not treated as American citizens. The number of individuals who came up and thanked Brendon and me for talking a stand was staggering and, frankly, depressing. I use the word depressing because if so many have to thank us for showing basic empathy, thank us for recognizing that they are human beings just like everyone else, that means that many, many other people have not. means that we are failing the American dream."

Then he tells about how he was stunned when a teacher/coach came up to him and thanked him, saying "What you did will save children's lives." Kluwe says, "This really hit me, in a primal way I was not expecting. ... A child should never have to feel that way. A child should never think that suicide is the only option, the only solution to the tormenting and bullying and unthinking viciousness adults often unwittingly pass along to the young. ... Because, make no mistake, children who suffer this way are casualties. All the hopes, all the dreams, all the wonderful potential life has in store are as dust before the scouring winds of intolerance (whether it be racist, sexist, or religious.) Every time you propagate the message that a person who is gay is less than human, that same-sex marriage cannot be as filled with love and laughter and tears as heterosexual marriage, that gays don't deserve to pass a legacy on the to their families, you quicken that howling storm and sweep away a tiny bit more humantity from the world. ... Well, I for one will not stand for it. I will not stand for... people thinking that they have the right to live other people's lives for them, of the complete lack of empathy so often shown in our society. ... I stand for equality under the law, for teating others how I would want to be treated. ... I stand for my children."

Powerful stuff. I stand with Chris Kluwe.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Empathy and the Boston Marathon Bombing...How?

I tried to write about the Boston Marathon bombings a week ago and got one sentence written before I was stuck; I sat there staring at the screen for some time before I gave up.

This is a very difficult thing to write about in regard to empathy. Of course, we have empathy for the victims. Of course, many write about our common humanity that emerges in these kinds of situations--the heroism, the selflessness. Harder is the question of empathy for the perpetrators. Is it important to understand them and what would cause them to do something so heinous? It feels like doing so is somehow condoning it. "Yes, I understand" usually means, "I sympathize, I can see where you're coming from, I'd probably do the same in your situation..." Certainly no one means that when they say we should have empathy for the bombers. Can we just write them off as evil? Apparently not, since so many who knew the younger brother, Dzhokhar, cannot reconcile their personal knowledge of him as a nice, normal kid with a terrorist.

A reader sent me a very interesting link to a blog in Reactions to Dzhokhar: Hatred, anger... empathy? I'd recommend checking it out.

But just now, as I was writing this, it became clear to me why I am struggling so with this particular subject. It's that Dzhokhar himself showed zero empathy to his victims. There are reports from his victims of him looking them in the eye as he set the bomb down and walked away, knowing that he was about to kill them. Fellow humans beings: children, fathers, mothers, friends. He had to completely turn off whatever empathy he normally felt for other people--and people who knew him testify that he was an empathetic, caring guy--to be able to do this. He had to turn off his empathy long before he committed the crime, while he was planning it for however many days. He had to keep it turned off as he was getting himself to the scene, knowing in his head what he intended to do, looking at people as he walked by them, completely dissociating himself from humanity. And then, he had to keep it turned off in the days following, as he saw evidence of the pain and suffering he had caused, as he learned the names of his victims, as he heard about the boy he killed, and the BU student, and the young working woman. He had to keep it turned off as he watched the people he maimed being interviewed on TV, as he watched the families of the victims crying on TV. We all cried as we watched it. How did he not?

How does this happen? How does empathy in a normally empathetic person get so completely turned off? That's the million dollar question.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Obama: Peace starts with Empathy

President Barack Obama recently gave a brilliant speech to the citizens of Israeli, asking them to consider how things are from the perspective of their adversary, the Palestinians. He said that the only way to get to peace between their two peoples is to have empathy for one another.

He spoke very forthrightly and directly to the Israelis: "It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of their own, living their entire lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements not just of those young people but their parents, their grandparents, every single day. It’s not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished. It’s not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands or restricting a student’s ability to move around the West Bank or displace Palestinian families from their homes." He emphasized the commonality between young persons of different cultures:  "Four years ago, I stood in Cairo in front of an audience of young people. Politically, religiously, they must seem a world away. But the things they want, they're not so different from what the young people here want. The ability to make their own decisions, to get an education and a good job, to worship God in their own way, to get married, to raise a family. The same is true of the young people in Gaza ..."

As Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University, writes in a blog for CNN, "In religious studies courses, professors often try to get their students to see the world through Hindu eyes or to walk a few miles in the shoes of a Confucian. Anthropologists refer to this as cultivating an emic (or insider) perspective. The less fancy name for it is empathy. Barack Obama is, for better or worse, an empathetic man who has tried for years to see the world through Republican eyes even as he has pleaded for Republicans to walk a few miles in Democratic shoes. As a former community organizer, he knows that you need a little empathy all around to get anything done among people with different world views."

As we say on our Empathy Symbol site--Empathy: The first step to peace in our families, schools, communities,nation, world. President Obama knows this. What could be accomplished if only people in our country and around the world took the wisdom of our president to heart!

Monday, January 21, 2013

Science and Empathy

I just finished listening to a broadcast of a fascinating radio show about empathy, from a scientific viewpoint, that aired on January 16th on WUNC from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. You can listen to the show first, and then join our discussion here in this blog. Or read the high points here first, and then listen to the in-depth discussion.

Two neuroscientists from Duke University, Lasano Harris and Pate Skene, approach the biological foundation of empathy with a more precise definition of empathy than I use, in that they include not just the ability to put oneself into another's shoes and understand both cognitively and emotionally what that person is experiencing, but that this results in the desire to help that person. Jesse Prinz, a professor of philosophy,  joins the discussion from his viewpoint of the history of morality.

Interestingly, and rather distressingly, they claim that in measuring a person's brain activity to determine how much the mirror neurons fire, they found that people are much more empathetic toward people who are like themselves, or toward people to whom they are close. At first in the discussion, they seem to claim that people actually can't feel empathy toward those who are "other", which I found distressing, since that's the whole point of the empathy symbol. But later they say that one's group doesn't necessarily have to be defined narrowly as one's race or cultural group, so they're not saying that I, as a white woman, cannot feel empathy for a black man. But they do make a very interesting point. To increase empathy, we need to find ways to increase our "group". If my empathetic neurons are going to fire more for a white, middle-aged, middle-class woman than they are for a homeless Latino man, then I need to find ways to mentally and emotionally expand my group to a broader range of humanity.

On the other hand, if our "group" is all of humanity, then we are burdened with unsustainable empathy. They talk about how a person cannot continue functioning on a day-to-day basis if he or she becomes overwhelmed with empathy for all the suffering people of the world. Certainly this is a journalistic truism, that people will be more interested in stories that are closer to them, and that the further away the reader gets, the less concern the story generates. So a fire that puts a family out on the street is interesting, and generates an empathetic response from us, if it happens in our town. We really cannot care about every fire that happens to every family in the world. A tsunami on the other side of the world is certainly big enough to attract our attention and interest, but we probably need to see video of real people getting swept out to sea or of sobbing parents discovering the body of their child for our empathetic neurons to fire, and thus to cause us to get out our wallets and donate to the relief effort.

 They talk about empathy for animals as well (certainly not a natural part of our group, but then many of us bond closely with our pets, and enjoy learning about animals in the wild.) They talk about how people who have higher levels of empathy need to shut that down so they don't get overwhelmed, and they even mention "roadkill" as being too distressing for a highly empathetic person. I found that interesting personally, since every time I drive past a dead squirrel on the street or a dead raccoon on the side of the road, I imagine their spirits leaving their bodies, and I feel a bit sad. If I'm driving on a busy street, I also can't drive past a car waiting on a side street to enter the road without checking my rear view mirror to see if they were able to get on the street. I feel concerned for them, and am compelled to check on them, even though it drives me crazy that I do that.

This was an fascinating discussion that broached on many aspects of empathy, including one that I discussed in a very early blog about empathy in autistic people. There is a common belief that autistic people cannot feel empathy or make that connection with other people's experiences and feelings, but the father of an adopted severely autistic child, Ralph Savarese (an English professor), enters the discussion about half-way through and thoroughly disputes that. He also brings in the angle of feeling empathy for characters in literature, and talks about how his son (now a successful college student) was overcome with empathy for Huck Finn and other characters in Twain's novel.

They even talk about empathy and the law, in that Pate Skene is now a law student. How do we get laws passed that protect the rights of minorities if we don't feel empathy for them because they are not part of our group? This is a good question that is very relevant to the current debate about gay marriage. As more gay people are open about their sexuality, more people will know them as individuals with whom they work, or as neighbors or members of their religious group, and will thus be able to include them in their now-expanded "group". It will be easier to empathize with their desire to be in a married relationship.

Lots of food for thought in this compelling broadcast. I invite you to listen to it, and add comments to the discussion in this blog.