Empathy is Not Always a Virtue

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

I’ve writ­ten a few times about the qual­i­ties of em­pa­thy and our society’s gen­eral need for more of it in the last year or so. However, em­pa­thy is not al­ways a virtue. When you em­pathize with some­one so much that you be­come emo­tion­ally in­ca­pable of meet­ing your own re­spon­si­bil­i­ties (like, say, tak­ing your fi­nal ex­ams), you have left the path of rea­son and ac­count­abil­ity, and be­come a type of fun­da­men­tal­ist.

And there is no ef­fec­tive mode of dis­course with a fun­da­men­tal­ist.

Thoughts on Privilege, Listening, Empathy, Discretion & Brokenness

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

I’m 33, and I think I’m fi­nally start­ing to in­ter­nal­ize what priv­i­lege means. I’ve al­ways per­ceived its fram­ing as a neg­a­tive. “You have priv­i­lege, and that’s not fair.” To which my thought has al­ways been: “Okay, so what am I sup­posed to do about it?” Denying it is fool­ish, and not us­ing it (which is what I’ve tried to do for a long time) is also fool­ish. I feel like the best use of my priv­i­lege is to ex­er­cise it in ways that are the op­po­site of pa­tron­iza­tion.

The eas­i­est method to start, for me, is to lis­ten with in­ten­tion to those who don’t share my priv­i­lege and have things to say. So the Under 30 open mic at Guide to Kulchur every week is a good chance for me to do that. I’m the only old per­son there. Meanwhile, up­stairs, there’s a po­etry chap­book called “For the Young Poets of Cleveland” writ­ten by an old white guy who is prob­a­bly in his late 50s. He was a grown-ass man when I was 4. The epony­mous poem is a list of rules for young po­ets to fol­low. The sec­ond poem is a trib­ute to d.a. levy. That pins this guy squarely to the priv­i­lege of every other old white guy poet in town who thinks po­etry be­gan and ended with the Beats. No young poet is go­ing to pick up that chap­book with any­thing other than de­ri­sion in mind. The dude ain’t got a clue be­cause he’d rather be di­dac­tic than lis­ten to what ac­tual young po­ets have to say. That’s what I’m try­ing not to be. (UPDATE: And thanks to Andy, in the com­ments be­low, I’ve learned that the guy hasn’t even lived in the area for 30 years.)

So I lis­ten. Hard. And I try to re­lease my eas­ily reached priv­i­leged judg­ments, be­cause that’s not any sort of pro­duc­tive.

Next up is em­pa­thy. I’ve al­ways been pretty good at em­pa­thy, but I re­al­ized that I know that and have there­fore not been prac­tic­ing it. A lazy em­pa­thy. When I lis­ten hard, I can’t be lazily em­pa­thetic. There are plenty of sit­u­a­tions that I haven’t been in that make it hard for me to un­der­stand what and why a per­son is feel­ing the way they are feel­ing, but their feel­ings are still valid. There’s no such thing as an in­valid feel­ing. I’ve been work­ing re­ally hard with my son on this, try­ing to de­velop a healthy un­der­stand­ing of feel­ings and their causes; a place we can both feel safe shar­ing. I’m try­ing to ex­tend that em­pa­thy to every­one else that shares things with me. Maybe I haven’t been in the ex­act sit­u­a­tion, but try­ing to un­der­stand, and ask­ing to un­der­stand get me most of the way there. Chances are I’ve had the same feel­ings my­self once in awhile.

What I’ve most re­cently awoken to is the virtue of dis­cre­tion. Typically dis­cre­tion is as­signed to one’s per­sonal af­fairs, but that’s small pota­toes com­pared to its ex­er­cise when it comes to the af­fairs that an­other shares with you. I’ve told many peo­ple over the years that se­crets die with me, and I’m still bat­ting a thou­sand on that count. I never re­ally thought of that in­ten­tion as some­thing par­tic­u­larly valu­able, but lately I’ve re­al­ized that it shouldn’t be de­nied. I know of not a few friend­ships that have dis­in­te­grated be­cause some­thing was shared in con­fi­dence, but the con­fi­dant could not keep their trap shut. Few things need more care than the vul­ner­a­bil­ity a friend en­trusts to you. Friendship can be treated far too flip­pantly.

All of this sort of ties into a fi­nal idea I’ve been chew­ing on. The con­cept that we are all partly bro­ken. The need to rec­og­nize that fact, the need to un­der­stand that peo­ple han­dle their bro­ken parts in dif­fer­ent ways. Some pre­tend they are whole, some pre­tend they are wholly bro­ken. There are as many ways to per­form bro­ken­ness as there are ways to be bro­ken. If you un­der­stand that, ac­cept your own bro­ken bits, the prac­tice of in­ten­tional lis­ten­ing, em­pa­thy & dis­cre­tion be­comes very ful­fill­ing. You know you’re do­ing bet­ter at en­sur­ing noth­ing you do makes chips and shat­ters on an­other per­son. You’ll still do it, be­cause you’re partly bro­ken too, but maybe some­one else will lis­ten, em­pathize, and honor your shar­ing.

Varieties of Empathy

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

There has been a lot swirling around my head lately; some gen­eral themes in­clude: fore­sight & hind­sight, the evo­lu­tion of the hu­man ca­pac­ity for change, ag­ing, em­pa­thy, the very dif­fer­ent im­pli­ca­tions & re­spon­si­bil­i­ties in­her­ent in dat­ing as a fa­ther, and why my dog farts un­con­trol­lably when my son plays with his toy he­li­copter (pro­nounced, and this is very im­por­tant: “hel­lapoc­ker”).

So I’ve been think­ing too much to write, much less co­her­ently. So I’m go­ing to try and catch up a bit, right now.

Foresight & Hindsight

When I was re­ally lit­tle, I had a book about Thomas Jefferson and the value of fore­sight. Although I’m not sure I fully grasped the con­cept at the time, it stuck with me. It’s some­thing I con­sider to be a rel­a­tive strength of mine. I can look ahead long-term and see what the path I want to fol­low en­tails and act ac­cord­ingly. I fig­ure that the bet­ter and more prac­ticed your fore­sight, the less it will dif­fer from the 2020 of hind­sight. I also fig­ure that not very many peo­ple un­der­stand the value of fore­sight or are ca­pa­ble of it. Or, I’m an ar­ro­gant dick.

Capacity Changes & Aging

In terms of in­ter­est, life seems to be a pro­gres­sion from the gen­eral to the speci­fic. A child is in­ter­ested in every­thing (ex­cept a var­ied diet), an ado­les­cent is in­ter­ested mostly in the things they like, and in try­ing things they haven’t yet been able to do. An adult tends to­ward the en­joy­ment of things they have es­tab­lished as life-long pas­sions, and loses in­ter­est in try­ing new things. I’m speak­ing in grand gen­er­al­i­ties, here. Wrapping it all to­gether with the fol­low­ing…


I think em­pa­thy can en­com­pass more than just shar­ing in another’s feel­ings; in­clud­ing as­pects of fore­sight & re­flec­tion upon the ca­pac­ity changes that ag­ing brings about. As ag­gra­vat­ing as it is to be an ado­les­cent who feels pa­tron­ized by “you’ll un­der­stand when you’re older”, what is seen as con­de­scen­sion is ac­tu­ally nos­tal­gia for (and there­fore em­pa­thy with) the feel­ings & ca­pac­i­ties of ado­les­cence & child­hood. Foresight is a kind of prepa­ra­tional em­pa­thy or an em­pa­thy with a fu­ture self; I look ahead and in the act of judg­ing pos­si­ble out­comes, place my­self in a cer­tain po­si­tions and re­verse en­gi­neer the best path to reach the place I want to end up.

Glad I’ve cleared that up for my­self.