Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Empathy in Modern Life

I have been thinking a lot about empathy lately and I think I can pin down a few reasons why:

Had gallbladder surgery at the beginning of month and had lots of concern from a wide selection of people (and little concern from some whom I expected to rely on),
My little friendly dog has been totally freaked out with bad weather lately and has been trying to live with,
A young friend told me she had little sympathy for poor people,
Had a talk with a fellow non-profit person who was very upset by a email (from a partner on a project) that seemed harsh and full of anger to her,
Have been talking to a lot of fellow activists in our city who are struggling with exhaustion, failure and...success,
Have been dealing often with a large, old world bureaucracy that seems more and more disintersted in helping anyone within their universe,
My organization has embarked on a many year research project to measure trust in public markets,
Hung out with some nice out of towners who are trying to come and understand,

For all of these reasons and more, I looked it up:

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Empathy (from the Greek εμπάθεια, transliterated as empatheia, meaning "physical affection, partiality") is commonly defined as one's ability to recognize, perceive and feel directly the emotion of another. Since the states of mind, beliefs, and desires of others are intertwined with their emotions, one with empathy for another may often be able to more effectively define another's mode of thought and mood. Empathy is often characterized as the ability to "put oneself into another's shoes", or to in some way experience the outlook or emotions of another being within oneself, a sort of emotional resonance.

Empathy is also a concept recognized as "reading" another person, completely translating each movement into understandable conversation.

In the current situation in New Orleans, empathy is seemingly at an all time high, and also sorely missing from the decision making. At times, the connections between people are deep, beautiful and at other times, the gulf between us is almost a physical space to me.

How can one live in an crowded, urban world-cheek to jowl with others-and be so callous, so dismissive of other lives, other problems? Especially in our little city which will struggle for at least the next decade with painful, anxious, unsure times?

I think it boils down to that we take what we can, and then disconnect to save our souls, brains and family circles. The problem comes when we stay disconnected for too long and the solitary emotional life is easier than bridging to others. That brings walls (physical and figurative), active prejudices that turn into "isms", unchecked anger at anyone who is separate from our personal realities. What is also at play is living in modern societies that allow, maybe even encourage physical and emotional separations from others and labels them as "Success".

I was thinking about road rage as well (I suffer from it at times), and it occured to me that road rage was a direct result of one of three things:

1. One's own lack of preparation around time management (running late, so the need increases to get somewhere in an unrealistic amount of time-my main reason for it),
2. A belief that you know more about driving a car than the driver that angers you, even though you have no idea of what is happening over there.
3. (This is the one that occurred to me this week): Lack of trust in others.

Lack of trust. Isn't this the real problem when we see problems in the modern world? We want to not be attached to people we don't know (that we don't look like or sound like because we don't understand them) and we are not willing to trust that we can rely on them.

I think we engage in empathy more in the lagalou world, and Peter Berg's brilliant original essay talked about and painted the concept without using the word.
Interestingly, when I met Peter and Judy Goldhaft, Peter asked me a tough question within our lunch conversation. I fumbled for an answer for far too long throwing lots of words out, trying to just talk through the answer without considering...
He listened quietly and then said, "So, what you want me to understand is..." and described my original unsaid point perfectly.
I looked at him and then at Judy and she said in response to the look on my face," Yes, he does that often. Amazing huh?"

I felt strengthened by what he had done (and what Judy had waited for him to do) at that moment, and have thought often about it since. I think of Peter and Judy and thank them silently for applying it to me and letting me see it in practice. Lagalou cannot have too much empathy, ever.

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