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.