A Poverty of Understanding

Author Corey Booker reflected on a conversation he had with a mentor of his, Frank Hutchins, in his book United. He goes into detail explaining some of the lessons Frank taught him and some of Frank’s views of the world. One big focus was on a lack of empathy, or shared understanding of each other’s circumstances, and how that impacts the way that we treat each other and approach the world. Describing Frank’s views, Booker wrote,

“What made … negative conditions persist, he believed, was an insidious poverty of understanding, a poverty of empathy. People’s inability to see what is going on in the lives of their fellow citizens, to understand what so many American’s endure, creates an atmosphere that allows injustice to fester and proliferate.”

Our American culture encourages us to think about ourselves before others and to focus on what the things and opportunities of our own before we think about how our choices impact the lives of others. We do not spend a lot of time thinking about the experiences of others and we hold up our own success as evidence of our greatness, proof that we are good people, and as an excuse to ignore those who are less fortunate than ourselves. Frank Hutchins would have argued that we need to listen and spend more time with those around us, in our neighborhood, at our children’s schools, and in our community and those communities near us to better understand the experiences and realities of other people. If we focus only on ourselves, the things we have, and the things we want, then we will never be able to develop a sense of empathy focused on other people and their well being. We will turn away from those in society who truly need help as we explore ways to have and achieve more for ourselves.

A major struggle of our politics today is determining how large a role personal responsibility should play in our success and how much assistance and aid we should receive from other people. When we fail to understand the experiences of others and generalize our experience to the rest of the world we can never reach an honest starting point to sort out the details of the personal responsibility discussion. Our success and our material desires drive us to seek more and seek what other people have, and it becomes tempting to believe that we achieved based on our own merit, and that those who do not enjoy our same comforts somehow lack personal responsibility or an industrious mind. This is the heart of the lack of understanding and empathy that Hutchins described.

Stepping beyond ourselves, our experiences, and our narrow perspectives requires truly interacting with other people and other communities that we often would not see. By putting our material desires and drive for success aside, we can look at other people and actually see them, and begin to think about the advantages we experience, the smart decisions we were able to make as a result, and how other people perhaps never had those advantages. Individually we won’t solve the question of how much personal responsibility plays into each person’s situation, but we will be better able to empathize and understand the realities of the lives of our fellow American’s.

Deep Human Connections

Senator Cory Booker from New Jersey reflected on his life journey, lessons, relationships, and values in his book, United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good. Throughout Booker’s experience, giving the title its meaning, he has become profoundly aware of how connected everyone is. Not just everyone in a small community or everyone in a country,  but truly everyone on earth, even including those who have passed away and those yet to be born. Government is about organizing society and society’s resources in a way that allows people to function together, and for Booker, our connections run deeper and are more profound than many of us realize on a daily basis. Focusing on our connectedness he writes,

 

“One of the most valuable things I’ve learned since moving to Newark almost twenty years ago is the need for a deeper awarenss of our human connection. I’ve learned that we must be more courageous in the empathy we extend to one another, we must shoulder a deeper responsibility for one another, and we must act in greater concert with one another”

 

I think it is very easy to become isolated from those around you, and to turn away from community activities and events. We have constant contact to the internet and television provides us with nearly endless entertainment. As a result we find ourselves content to experience reality through digital devices and do not spend as much time outside and in our community as we did in the past. A common complaint of government today is that it is too large and performs too many functions that should be left to the private sector or to charity. The problem with such a complaint is that as we become more isolated and shut in, there are fewer people and community groups willing to put forth the effort to provide food or shelter to homeless, to ensure impoverished communities receive healthcare, and to maintain recreation facilities. As we have lost our sense of being united in the physical world in preference of our sense of being connected through the digital world, we have left much of society without support, and government has been the necessary agent to step in and support the communities and individuals left behind.

 

The paragraph above is my observation, but I think it helps explain how we have ended up in a place where Booker’s comments on unity are refreshing and profound. The more we can recognize and rekindle our connections with those around us and with the world as a whole, the more we develop empathy by understanding the challenges that others face. By getting out and being receptive to the difficulties of the human experience, we can share our lessons in overcoming such difficulties as we help raise up others. When we think of another’s failure as our failure to connect with another person by encouraging and supporting them, we find a new perspective of interconnectedness on our path forward as human beings living together on planet earth.

Listening and Empathizing

In his writing from the second century, Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius talks about the importance of self-awareness, being present in every moment, and learning to view others through new perspectives which build empathy with other people.  Combining these ideas in a simple thought, Aurelius wrote, “Accustom thyself to attend carefully to what is said by another, and as much as it is possible, be in the speaker’s mind.”  In this short sentence, he is encouraging us to practice all three of his main tenants, and to apply them specifically in conversation.  He does not continue on to explain the benefits of actively listening to what others say, nor does he expand on his thoughts in this passage to explain the downfall of failing to build empathy with others, but throughout his book he reminds us the importance of all of these areas, and he challenges the reader to see the importance of what he discusses.

 

Being present in a conversation means that one is more focused on what the other person is saying than their own thoughts or what is happening around them.  Listening intently involves not just focus, but communication through both verbal and non-verbal expressions as we demonstrate our engagement and ask more probing questions to better understand the speaker.  It is a practice which involves intention and self-awareness as much as mental focus. If we do not recognize our behavior and if we lack the determination to attend to every work that is said to us, then we will not build the focus needed to truly connect and listen well.

 

What I really appreciate about this quick quote from Aurelius is the idea of empathy that is implicitly expressed by the emperor.  Focusing on what is said in a conversation is an excellent skill, but without empathy we become more like a lawyer than a close friend to the person who is speaking. If we do not put ourselves in the mindset of the individual speaking, and if we do not try to understand their perspective, then we may just be preparing our thoughts while they are speaking, building a defense to our own point of view and perspective.  Taking the time during a conversation to truly understand the other by being in the speaker’s mind will help us connect with people in a more profound way, and it will help us have a richer understanding of how other people interpret the world around them.

The Breadth of Empathy

When Peter Singer describes empathy in his book The Most Good You Can Do, he explains that there are four separate parts that make up empathy, and that those four parts come together to form two separate categories of empathy. The different aspects of empathy manifest in their own way as we react to others and have different experiences related to the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of others.

 

The first of the two larger categories of empathy, according to Singer, is emotional empathy. “Emotional empathy is, in most situations, a good thing, but it is usually at its strongest when we can identify and relate to an individual,” Singer writes.  He describes this type of empathy as our emotional responses to the thoughts and feelings of others. Emotional empathy, he explains, covers empathetic concern and personal distress, two pieces of empathy that mesh our emotional experiences with that of others.  It is our ability to feel compassion and concern for others and their experiences, and our ability to experience the same feelings of unease and discomfort when we are with or speaking to an individual who is going through a challenging period.  It is the mirroring of the emotions of others, and our emotional urge to assist those in need.

 

Our second category of empathy, as explained by Singer, is what he calls cognitive empathy. While emotional empathy involves the way we feel about others, cognitive empathy involves the way we rationally think about the lives, thoughts, and experiences of others.  Wrapped up in cognitive empathy is perspective taking and fantasy, the former referring to our ability to adopt the point of view of others, and the latter referring to our ability to imagine ourselves going through the same experiences of others. Cognitive empathy helps us see the challenges that many people face, but it does not always help us truly feel the urge to act. Singer writes, “We can have cognitive empathy with thousands of children, but it is very hard to feel emotional empathy for so many people whom we cannot even identify as individuals.” What Singer is explaining is that we may recognize that others do not have water or access to food, but it is hard for us to truly understand what life is like in those circumstances. We may also be dwarfed by the number of individuals who need our assistance, leading us to feel as though we cannot have an impact since we cannot help them all.

 

Throughout his book Singer argues that the world needs to find a better way to make use of cognitive empathy to change the world. Most people tend to be warm glow givers, or those who donate impulsively to causes that are emotionally charged. Few people can truly bring themselves to make a donation or work for a cause that will help unidentifiable individuals in another country.  Unfortunately, it is those who we cannot see who we can often impact the most. Understanding that empathy can manifest in multiple manners will help us understand how to better connect with those around us, and those living in the world beyond the close boarders in which we typically think and interact.  Singer encourages us to recognize and use both types of empathy to have a greater impact on this planet, and to maximize the decisions we make.  Combining our cognitive with our emotional empathy can help us reach a greater level of catharsis by acting deliberately to use our resources and ability to help those who truly need it the most.

A Lack of Empathy

When describing the attitudes of effective altruists in his book, The Most Good You Can Do, author Peter Singer examines empathy, and how empathy affects people within a community.  Singer focuses on what empathy means and how it has become something worth focusing on in our lives today.  In his book, the author uses a quote from President Obama as an example of how many people think about empathy today,

 

“Shortly after he was elected president of the united states, Obama recieved a letter from a young girl suggesting a ban on unneccessary wars.  In response he told the girl, “If you don’t already know what it means, I want you to look up the word empathy in the dictionary. I beleive we don’t have enough empathy in our wold today, and it is up to your generation to change that.”

 

Singer sets up Obama’s quote by defining empathy as the ability to put oneself in the position of others and identify with their feelings or emotions. He also looks at work by Jeremy Rifkin who sees empathy as a force that is spreading broadly within our community and evolving with our society. In Rifkin’s view, empathy is no longer something we restrict to our close group or to those who look and act like us. Empathy is growing and we are beginning to see the importance of sharing empathy with all of those across the planet.  That means that as a culture that is increasingly globalized, we are able to see the points of view and understand the feelings of more and more people.

 

It is this spread of empathy that Singer believes is at the heart of the effective altruist movement. He breaks empathy down and looks at four types of empathy in the sections following Obama’s quote.  While Singer agrees that empathy is spreading and building the effective altruist movement, I believe he would also feel as though it is not as widespread through our country as it should be.  Practicing empathy can be very easy for some people, but a major challenge for others. Everyone within a community will have to look at empathy and build toward a point where they allow empathy to overcome their prejudices if we want to be the generation that President Obama is counting on to change the way we interact with one another.