Several Short Sentences About Empathy

(the style of this essay is borrowed from that of NYT nature writer Verlyn Klinkenborg’s brilliant essay & book “Several Short Sentences About Writing”; I’m playing with it as an interesting new form of prose)

  1. If we’re going to survive as a species when our civilization crumbles (and when that collapse brings about the end of the industrial economy, the end of abundant cheap energy and the end of stable climate), we are going to have to relearn how to live in community.
  2. That will entail relearning to get along with (and to love, not just tolerate) people in our physical communities who we don’t like much. In our modern, anonymous, isolating society we have not had to do this.
  3. Getting along with people we don’t like will require us to study, understand and appreciate why they are the way they are. They are the way they are for a reason.
  4. Once we appreciate this reason, we will be able to empathize with their behaviour, and from that it’s a short journey to loving them.
  5. One of the likely reasons they are the way they are is that, because of how and where they were raised, they learned that this is a good way to be. A good way to be, depending on the worldview you’re endowed with (and evolve through critical and imaginative thinking) is one that is, at least for you: Moral, safe, rewarded and/or mandated.
  6. This good way to be, to others who do not share your worldview, may come across as: Unreasonable, cruel, insane, insensitive, irrational, defensive, insufferable, frightening, threatening and/or reality-denying.
  7. There are a number of evolved “rules” for behaviour in modern businesses (and most workplaces), and generally in the Anglo-American cultures (and some other cultures) that reflect a certain, now widely-prevalent antipathetic worldview. These rules include:
    • Do not express your feelings. That is a sign of weakness. Only exception: Male superiors may express (justifiable) anger towards subordinates.
    • Do not accept responsibility, and, more specifically, make and hold others responsible for as much as possible. You always want to have more power (authority) than you have responsibility. Otherwise you will get none of the credit and all of the blame (and most of the work).
    • Someone must always be to blame. It is always about “human error”, weakness, failure. To admit otherwise would be to acknowledge that we, civilized humans, and especially our leaders, are not in control and/or do not really know what is going on.
    • We must never admit that no one is in control and that no one really knows what is going on, because to do so would forfeit our authority, undermine our sense of self-control and the natural hierarchical order of things, and hence lead to terror and anarchy.
    • We must, ourselves, always appear to be in control and to know what is going on. The best way to do this is to convince ourselves it is true.
  8. There is no room for empathy, or the embracing of uncertainty, ambiguity or complexity in such a worldview.
  9. Evolving an alternative worldview that does allow room for these things is essential to us rediscovering how to live in true community. Such a worldview would have these qualities and favour these behaviours:
    • We know ourselves well: We know what we are competent at (and not), what we love (and hate) doing, what triggers us and why.
    • We believe everyone is doing their best, and everyone is, to some extent, suffering and handicapped and in need.
    • When someone exhibits behaviour that we don’t understand, we talk and work with that person and with others in the community to try to understand it. We try hard not to judge it.
    • We are distrustful of hierarchy and avoid it as much as possible.
    • We believe in the power of consensus, empathy, conversation and appreciative inquiry, and the wisdom of the crowd.
    • When something happens that triggers anger, fear, anxiety, sadness or grief, we recognize the trigger for what it is and don’t let it own us. We own it. We appreciate that the trigger is our “stuff”, not that of the person who provoked it.
    • We trust that the person was not maliciously trying to trigger us, and try to understand why they said or did what they did. We don’t try to “fix” the situation so it can’t recur, or “fix” the person who provoked it. We accept them for who they are.
    • We let it go and move on.
  10. When our economy collapses, and central organizations can no longer do things for us (give us jobs, provide us services, import and export things, transport us by air, inform us, entertain us, treat our illnesses and accidents, train us, or tell us what to do) we will have to learn to invite people in our local communities to come together to find ways to do these things for ourselves.
  11. By “ourselves” I mean all of us living in a local physical community, the people who happen to live in the same neighbourhood when the shit hits the fan. By “ourselves” I do not mean us as dangerously armed individuals behind a bunker and barbed wire with large amounts of emergency provisions and duct tape. These provisions, no matter how extensive or carefully assembled, will run out long before the Long Emergency does. And to believe that we can survive system collapse “alone” in some kind of nuclear family unit is pure hubris.
  12. None of this will happen quickly; over the next few decades it will get intermittently better and worse, but mostly worse, in periods of punctuated equilibrium. We will have time to relearn to do this stuff. But it wouldn’t hurt to start now; there’s a lot to relearn and we’re going to make a lot of awful mistakes in the process.
  13. The communities we find ourselves in when this happens will be accidental communities. We may want them to be intentional communities, full of like-minded people with broad, deep, complementary skills. But they won’t.
  14. Our accidental communities will include (probably many) individuals struggling with one or more of these challenges: Homelessness, alcohol, gambling, nicotine, drug and other addictions (to many kinds of substances and behaviours), chronic depression (possibly suicidal), physical mobility issues, Alzheimers, autism spectrum and other dissociative behaviours, visual and/or auditory incapacity, dependence on expensive and complex medications, autoimmune diseases, cancers, anger and sexual abuse issues (both protagonists and victims), propensity to steal, vigilantism, mental illnesses, incapacity to care for themselves (e.g. orphaned and abandoned children), inability to speak the native language (e.g. refugees), religious and political intolerance, chromosome dysfunctions (e.g. Down’s), learning disabilities, bullying behaviours, narcissism, obsessive/compulsive behaviours and beliefs (e.g. conspiracy theories), exaggerated and diminished sense of self-worth, and many others. As the struggles get harder and the crises deepen, we will all start to manifest more of these behaviours. There will likely be no central institutions to deal with these issues outside our communities. We will have to find a way to deal with them ourselves.
  15. Empathy is a quality that is neither essential nor common in our modern civilization. It takes spending some time with the worldview summarized in point 9 above, and a lot of practice, to be skilled at it. Bonobos appear to be skilled at it.
  16. I, for one, am not skilled at it.
  17. Empathy is not just a feeling; it is an offering. It is something you give another because you want to, and because you can. It cannot be extracted by demand, or by plea, or (for very long) by manipulation or coercion. If it’s not genuine it’s not empathy.
  18. Empathy is not feeling sorry for someone. It is the capacity to understand, accept, appreciate and care about another’s feelings, and, sometimes, to convey that to the ones one empathizes with (through words, expression, touch and other means). Its presence or absence drives the behaviours and actions we take as part of a community.
  19. In the coming decades, as our lives revolve more and more around the accidental communities in which we find ourselves, empathy will become, along with facilitation and mentoring skills, absolutely crucial. Without it, these communities will disintegrate. With it, they will be able to create new, stable, resilient societies.
  20. It is likely that, across the globe, some communities will succeed at this, and others will fail. It will be impossible to predict which will succeed, or why, so any success will probably not be replicable. Each tribe will succeed on its own. Or not.
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14 Responses to Several Short Sentences About Empathy

  1. Pingback: Several Short Sentences About Empathy « UKIAH BLOG

  2. vera says:

    “Once we appreciate this reason, we will be able to empathize with their behaviour, and from that it’s a short journey to loving them.”

    Now that’s gotta be one of the silliest things you’ve ever written. To everything that follows this riff, pfft. Love the rest of it.

    Sorry for the bluntness. Having a bad morning online. This just finished me off.

  3. Jerb says:

    That’s powerful stuff, and very clearly written.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks Vera. I put that in (and a few other sentences) just to be provocative. Do you really think it’s impossible to love people you don’t like? I know many people who love their parents, even though they don’t really like them, disagree with them on every matter of substance, and often fight like cats and dogs (or maybe I should say Democrats and Republicans). I know people who love their parents even though they were subjected to a lifetime of abuse by them. When you spend enough time with people, you can understand them enough to empathize with, and love them, despite everything. When I visited Hopkins, Belize, where everyone knows everyone else (and most are probably at least distant relations), they know who the people in their community are who steal, and why (mostly for drugs). They know the people who are mentally unstable, and they collectively look out for, and look after, them. They “love” them despite all that, though they may laugh at them, make jokes about them, and get annoyed by them, and maybe even fear them a little. I don’t know that “love” is the right word, but I know they embrace them in a way that seems impossible to ever see happening in our institutionalized, disconnected, anonymous communities. Just thinking out loud here, throwin’ stuff out. Thanks for playing.

  5. vera says:

    Dave, I don’t know where to start. Here’s a smidgen. There is a difference between judging a person, and judging behavior. To fail to discern the latter when harmful (regardless of what caused it, deep down) and to fail to protect oneself and the rest of one’s community can only lead to disaster. When it comes to growing a well functioning community, not knowing the difference between the two is akin, IMO, to shooting oneself in the foot when starting on a strenuous hike. Handicapped from the get-go.

    Btw, what the heck happened to there in Belize and Joe? He tried to do some lovely stuff for the Hopkinsians and the rumor has it, it kinda blew up in his face. Is there a lesson there for us all?

  6. Vincent Reynolds says:

    This is brilliant and needed everywhere. I need to quote this to people and organizations. I’ve never heard of you but this succinct piece is what’s been missing for my work. Thanks for this. Is this in a book somewhere, or could be? Something physical for out off the grid? Thanks again. Hope to read more of your writing and connect with you and your community maybe.


  7. vera says:

    So? Are you playing, or was that a duck that went by? ;-)

  8. Empathy and its older cousin, compassion, are the keys to becoming a healthy adult human. I agree with all the points in 9 – this is what it takes to become an adult. One is always better off being an adult.

    That said, there is a dark side that must be addressed. What about those damaged, dysfunctional ones who don’t (or can’t) become adult? What about the stunted, the violent, the sociopathic – who, for better or worse are part of our communities? In a small self-sufficient community they can wreak havoc. The traditional tribal technique for dealing with them is ostracism. However, during the time of transition, especially to people who are trying to grow up as fast as they can, such an action may seem inhumane – especially if the operating principle of the community is altruism and cooperation with all. That will pose a problem – potentially a big one. It has destroyed such communities in the past. Anybody who came of age around 1968 knows the stories.

    That’s no reason not to grow up, however – that may be the one lesson the coming shift gives the willing and the unwilling alike. Growing up may not guarantee our survival, but without it survival will be impossible.

  9. Pingback: Golden Rule the World « Poor Richard's Almanack 2.0

  10. Dave Pollard says:

    Vera: I wasn’t with Joe near the end of his life, but I can tell you first hand he made a huge difference to the people of Hopkins, and they loved him as one of their own, although they probably never quite figured him out. I know he had some idealistic plans to help the whole community, in addition to what he did for them one-to-one, so perhaps they’re the ones that didn’t pan out. Perhaps gentle kindness cannot scale.

    Vincent: Thank you!

    Vera & Paul: As for coping with sociopathic behaviour within small communities, I don’t know — we’ll have to figure it out I guess. Wasn’t there a famous Inuit film about this — what was its message? Where do we draw the line between those whose personal damage is dysfunctional and irreparably disruptive to the community and those whose personal damage is manageable? I’ve seen how the people of Hopkins dealt with addicts, and it was both guarded and compassionate. But to my knowledge they didn’t have to deal with sociopathy. I’ve also seen how Intentional Communities deal with it — sometimes too indulgently, sometimes overreacting. Eventually everyone (including those with the problems) seems to understand (a) who needs special attention, (b) when and where to draw the line on their behaviour, and (c) when the problem is critical or chronic enough that they need to ask the person to leave. But that’s just anecdotal. Better answers will have to evolve, and hopefully will be shared between communities.

  11. Martin says:

    If only….

    Back in the early ’70’s I was a founder/participant in a ‘co-op house’ (read urban commune) for several years. When we started out, we determined to let the ‘rules for membership and operation’ set themselves via consensus, which worked for quite awhile until the membership began to shift – which it always does – and we began to experience a small infusion of people (friends of friends, usually) who wanted to make their own ‘rules’ instead of adhering to the consensus system. Didn’t take long for things to go awry after that and we began ejecting/rejecting people on the grounds that they didn’t ‘fit in’. Turned out that I was one of the ejectees – and I was glad to go.

    Also, I’d substitute ‘care for’ for love.

  12. terrapraeta says:

    I think the word y’all are looking for is “philia” because it IS love, but it’s also a certain type of love that English has no word for.

    Otherwise, I’m right with you Dave. Good Stuff


  13. vera says:

    Dave, I heard that Joe was implementing some scheme that had to do with shipping crates for shelters. And things kinda blew up. He spent the last of his winters in Ajijic, Mexico.

  14. Dear Dave,
    Your writings are so refreshing and ring so true….a few years back i read something about this confusion on ’empathy’ and ‘love’ by John Payne.
    He says….”love is the total and complete acceptance of what is. Love allows. Love is about allowing yourself to be who and what you are and allowing that same right to all others”…..i guess it is difficult to even explain in words!
    Good luck my dear friend

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