Friday, January 31, 2014

Growing Empathy is now!

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Tuesday, January 28, 2014


According to the news, we have an "Empathy Gap" in politics. Let's say there is such a thing as an empathy gap - some sort of distance and lack of connection between the people of this country and some (or all) of our elected representatives. 

I believe that a politician's job is to do two things; to represent me (as a leader or decision maker, for some section of this country) and to let me know that I am represented (through talking to me). I can think of two questions about how 'empathy' relates to 'politics': 

1. To represent me - do they need empathy?

In general, I agree with that statement. I believe that when I use empathy in the right way, I see other's point of view much more clearly. When I see others more clearly, I can make decisions that are good for all sides of a debate. 

There are some people out there who would agree with me - who believe we need empathy in our leaders for them to make good policy decisions. Our President has talked about using empathy to make good decisions quite a lot during his political career.*

I also know that not everyone feels that empathy is the right way to make good decisions. 

From listening to Paul Bloom, I see that using empathy wrongly can be harmful. For example, let's say I'm on a jury for a robbery case. If I empathize with the victim's side more than I empathize with the robber's side, I might give the robber a harsher sentence than they deserve. There may be other, more extreme examples of this misapplication of empathy

That's the most difficult aspect of this issue; that empathy is not in itself bad or good; it's a skill. I can learn to use that skill to feel good and to feel a part of this world and to help my fellow beings on this planet. I can also learn to use that skill to cause harm. It's a horrible thought but I believe it to be true. It's just not the way I think empathy should be used. 

(Ugh, now I need to go wash my hands or something.)

I see an empathy gap here; I see a difference in how we view empathy can be used - rightly, or wrongly. But I'm not sure that's what the news is talking about.

2. To communicate with me - can I feel empathy through the TV?

I hear my politicians talk to me all the time - and since I don't have a direct personal connection, most of that 'talking' is happening through the media. Sometimes politicians need to be reminded to show empathy when they speak. 

I don't think that this showing in the media is true empathy - they can't see me and I can't hear them. When politicians talk (to the media) they are really creating an image of themselves - they are creating an image of empathy.

If Senator X talks to a reporter about how he feels for the unemployed, he is trying to find a way to reach the lady sitting on her couch wondering about how she'll heat her house tomorrow. She's wondering if she will find a job - can she hear him? Does he hear her? I see an empathy gap right there - between the politician talking and 

the layers of [TV reporter questions] and 

[the TV producer editing the show] and 

[the Cable TV network that decides what to show] past 

[the commercials telling us what to buy and how best to make salsa].

Past all of that, they need to reach all the way down to that lady sitting on her couch. Politicians don't seem to be as good anymore at showing us an image of empathy that can cut through all those layers. 


Have you been heard?

Would you want to personally connect to a politician, especially to one who you didn't vote for?


*Here's a nice example, from when Obama was a Senator and was talking during the confirmation hearings for a Supreme Court Judge. He said, "...what matters on the Supreme Court is those 5 percent of cases that are truly difficult. In those cases, adherence to precedent and rules of construction and interpretation will only get you through the 25th mile of the marathon. That last mile can only be determined on the basis of one's deepest values, one's core concerns, one's broader perspectives on how the world works, and the depth and breadth of one's empathy."

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Book Review - "The Pen Prostitute Short Stories Volume 1"

Are you looking for a new book? Are you trying to build up your empathy muscles by reading some good non-fiction? Here's my review of "The Pen Prostitute Short Stories Volume I" by Cybele Tamulonis.

In short, these stories make the concept of 'bad things happening to good people' into a dance; a piece of art that I very much enjoyed being led through. The author is fond of the macabre and of the last second twist. Her writing draws you in fast and hits you hard, as I believe good short stories should do.

I finished the book pretty quickly, and I immediately concluded that the story, "Happy" was my favorite. Not just my favorite, but also the most accessible for me. As I mentioned before, I'm more of an optimist in general and I don't like hearing bad news, and as the title suggests that particular one had a clearly happy ending.

Another of the stories that I found myself emotionally invested in was "The Accidental Dentist". This one I think reflects pretty well on her writing style; she will pull you in one direction while pushing you in another, back and forth during the story. I followed the heart of the dentist while feeling the story of his assistant, hearing their shared life.


Each of her short stories reminded me of having a really good dessert - let's say I'm out to dinner, and I've ordered a slice of chocolate cake. When it arrives I take my first warm and chewy bite; I get the strong sweet notes of exactly what I was expecting - as each story did deliver a good feeling and an immediate connection with the characters.

Then I'm assaulted by the unexpected flavors - sour cherries, bitter clove, or of hints of spicy chili. I don't know if I like it or not but I keep going because I'm drawn into it. The mix of sweet and spicy and sour and tangy words and cake have taken over my thoughts and my spoon and before I know it, I'm done. Only after the plate is clean do I look back on the experience; I think about the mix of elements in the story and wonder how I managed to read it all so quickly and so easily. It was great, I think.

And yet...there's a slight bitter aftertaste. Something that reminds me that not all is right in the world.


If you like character stories with reminders of the cruelty of humanity, then this book may be for you. Let's hope she keeps it up with Volume II.


Tuesday, January 7, 2014

A party I won't forget

I've lately been pondering on what makes a good 'opening line' when meeting new people. Hi, how are you, nice to meet you, and then....what to say? Sometimes I try "what do you do for a living", but in today's economy I could be talking to someone who lost their job or just doesn't like their job. Or maybe, I know what they do already, since I'm at an office party. Or MAYBE they have a super-secret national security agency job and can't talk about it at all...but in all of those cases the 'what do you do' question can be a quick conversation killer.


I recently went to a party with some friends. The food was good and plentiful and the conversations lively.

Walking up to the appetizer display, I saw someone I had been introduced to earlier. I started right in with my new opener, "So, what makes you happy?" and he said, "Wow, nobody's ever asked me that before!" He was older than I, in his early 60s at least, so I was kind of surprised to hear that. But then he recovered and said "God." I was a little taken aback, I mean, I was hoping for a deep conversation, but then I was thinking maybe he was joking, so I smiled and said, "Okay, I was thinking more of a hobby....."

He smiled back and said, "No, I'm serious".

Then he told me his life story. He had much pain and suffering, he felt lost and afraid, and when he was near bottom he found a religion he could connect with.

I have to say, I was a bit stressed having this conversation. He was obviously very passionate and had a lot to share; but I have found that sometimes such zeal can be overwhelming. I also was a little afraid he was going to try to convince me to join his temple because of his 'persuasive' tone, and this would move into an argument about whose beliefs were 'right'.

We kept going - him talking and me listening, and then we talked some more. After half an hour I took a quick break for a drink from the bar and then went right back to him.

On my break I realized that listening to him talk was much harder than I anticipated. I was trying to listen and have empathy, to feel what he felt going through this experience. I have a tendency to answer people's questions with agreement, to make them feel good. Telling him "I understand, yeah, that makes sense" can sound like I'm agreeing with him, doesn't it? Except I'm not. I'm just following his logic, and feeling his feelings of joy and discovery.

I think this is where some people get confused about empathy - just because I have empathy for you (just because I feel what you feel, and I see why you feel the way you do) doesn't mean I agree with you. It doesn't mean I would even make the same decisions as you, knowing what you've told me and feeling what you feel. It's not about who is right or who is wrong; it's about coming to an understanding of feelings.

There was one point where he said, "Well, you understand what I'm saying, how do you feel about this?" and I had to take a deep, deep breath before answering. I said, "Well, we'll talk about me later, right now I want to hear about your journey." I heaved a sigh of relief. I was literally exhausted after our talk.

I could have cut short the conversation, I could have walked away, but I didn't. I stayed because part of the point of this journey of building connections with people is pushing myself outside of my boundaries. Pushing myself to be uncomfortable. If I feel uncomfortable, I know I'm doing it right. :)

What about you, have you met anyone new recently? Pushed your boundaries?

What was your opening line?