Realising new truths about empathy in 2021

I stopped working on All Things Empathy as quickly as I started.  I read a book that stopped me in my tracks. But let’s back up a bit.

The latest US election and the shitstorm that preceded and followed reminded me this is all far from over – the division, corruption, censorship, Bernie with the gloves, Trump with the dancing.

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via GIPHY

I felt sad about an increasing lack of empathy and compassion for each other. Given that in 2020 every human decided to start a creative project, I figured I wouldn’t mind a creative outlet. I’d wanted to make interested and provocative content on empathy for empathetic people.

Empathetic people can help us reconnect and find our common ground. The idea was to provide a space for them to develop their strengths, be inspired, and connect with other empathetic people.

Going into it, I was fixated on how divided we had become. I yearned for people to hold their views more lightly or even to shift them.

I made the website, recorded a couple of episodes, and prepared for the third, then I read this stupid book.

Everything is f*cked

After recording a conversation with Megumi Miki, I went to the library to collect my reservation of cheesy romantic fiction books (don’t judge, they’re the best).

Scanning the room, I noticed Mark Manson’s second book, “Everything is f*cked, a book about hope“. I’d read “The subtle art of not giving a f*ck” and had been meaning to read his new book for a while. Done deal, I chucked it in my borrow pile and went on my merry way.

Mark Manson f*cking ruined everything! Well, not really. But this book helped me to understand why I was feeling stuck with All Things Empathy. Great timing. I won’t give much away, and these are just some of my interpretations anyway, but it’s a thought-provoking read, and I recommend it.

Human interaction transaction 

Manson explores the transactional nature of our conversations, e.g., connecting with someone for personal gain or because you want to get your point across about something.

You know what I’m talking about! Maybe you overhear a conversation about cats vs. dogs, and you listen intently, in case you want to interject with your opinion. Or when you’re busy thinking about a point you want to make when you’re supposed to be listening. It’s why networking events can be so awkward. Or why some people feel it’s okay to yell at someone who screwed up their coffee order.

We’re all transactional with each other from time to time – it’s unavoidable. But sometimes, we care more about being right than being a kind human. We care more about fighting for our cause (religion, climate change, racism, cold showers, pineapple on pizza, whatever) than asking how someone’s day is going.

It doesn’t help that the media we consume is constantly egging us on, making us feel so damn on edge around each other all the time.

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And sometimes this feels so intense that we can no longer deal with people who make us feel uncomfortable, so we avoid each other. This is not great either. There’s no learning, progress, or critical thinking without diversity of thought and disagreement.

The Formula of Humanity

We use objects in a transactional nature all the time. Take a mug. We use a mug as a means to an end – drinking coffee or tea – but if that mug gets a crack in it, we don’t use it anymore. No worries, unless it was your favourite mug. But when we use people in the same way, things get kind of tricky.

Humans need connection. We know how it feels when we have it, and we can understand how brutal the world can be without it. Anxiety, depression, loneliness are rising at poop-inducing rates.

A German philosopher Immanuel Kant came up with this concept called the ‘formula of humanity’ which proposed: 

“Act that you use humanity, whether in your own person, in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means”. 

When our interactions with people are less about connecting, and more about telling, we fail to see the humanity of the person we’re encountering. We don’t see their own values, ideas, views – we just see them as someone to influence with our own ideologies. As we become more obsessed with things we want to change about the world, we become less connected as humans.

A risk this idea highlighted that if we aren’t careful, All Things Empathy might yet become another ideology trying to get people’s attention.

While ‘cat’ and ‘dog’ lovers are trying to bring people to their side, we would be trying to help people find their way back from the fringes of their extreme cat and dog-loving ways.

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The challenge is that while there is always common ground to be found, we will find something to disagree on because of our human nature. Even if we all agree that cats are the best, we’ll find something new tomorrow (see the Blue Dot effect study for evidence on this).

The Formula in Practice

Suppose All Things Empathy aligns with the formula of humanity. It becomes empathy just because connection is important. Because seeing the humanity in each other is important. Not because we expect something in return. Empathy becomes the means and the end.

This matters when a global thought leader on empathy, Brene Brown, appears to have strongly aligned her platform with one side of the political spectrum. I have next-level amounts of respect and love for Brene Brown. Of course, she will have her own political preferences and causes she supports (and she always been open about these).

However, I honestly feel a little disappointed. I feel she missed an opportunity to be a unifying influence. I feel like empathy shouldn’t be reserved for just one side, one cause, groups of people.

For change to occur, we need bold enough people to transcend above ‘us’ versus ‘them’ and remind us of humanity in everyone.

Being wrong opens us up to the possibility of change

At the same time as I feel excited about what I just wrote, it could be completely wrong. I may and probably will absolutely cringe over it in a week. Let’s be real, most of what’s right and wrong is subjective anyway – there are about 7.8 billion different versions of it.

How do you accept that without curling into the fetal position daily? It’s a delicate balance because always being a Hermione Granger level ‘know it all’ is pretty annoying (love you Hermione). But go too far the other way, and you won’t escape self-doubt, and the world will miss out on all the good stuff you bring to it.

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There are no easy answers, except to be open to the idea that you could be wrong and to invite it as a good thing.

We planned to launch this month with lots of content – interviews, articles, tools – for holding space for empathy. But I’m learning that I have more questions than answers about empathy. So. Many. Questions.

So this is now a learning journey party you are all invited to. Going forward, All Things Empathy is a big experiment that seeks to find out whether empathy for empathy’s sake actually improves people’s lives. We’ll use #empathywalking to collect what we’re learning.

#empathywalking

#empathywalking is about empathy for the sake of connection. For our collective humanity.

Compassion because it’s the decent thing to do, not because we expect something in return.

Not just for those who vote, think, act, look, talk the same as we do. For the ‘us,’ ‘them’ and the ‘in between.’

Because it doesn’t matter who they are, we all experience grief, pain, joy, boredom, embarrassment, loneliness and shame.

Because it doesn’t matter who we are or what we are going through, we have the ability to connect. It’s free. It can take a lot of our time, or a little.

We can start tomorrow. We can start right now.

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Weirdly, this idea is countercultural in today’s current social and political climate, but here we are.

Things seem so complex, hopeless, out of control. It’s dark, and we can’t see our way out right now, but imagine if something as simple as taking back our ability to connect and love one another for who we are, is the light we have looking for?

I don’t have all the answers, or maybe even any.

But let’s try and figure this out together.

See you at #empathywalking

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