Monday, June 9, 2014

What holds us back? Listening to some academics talk about empathy

Last year, the SEEK company brought some people together from a bunch of different disciplines and had them all talk about empathy from their own point of view. I loved this video so much that I wanted to share it with you. Really, I just wanted it to go on forever. It was everything I remember to be good about college; great ideas shared in a relaxed environment over some yummy looking food and drink.

Click here to see the video, The first of a series of roundtables around the topic of Empathy. Recorded July, 2013 at the Massachusetts Historical Society's Dowse Library.*


The speakers began by trying to define what empathy meant to each of them, which I would call the 'getting to know you' part of the discussion. Then came the question, what can cause empathy to happen? Is it something that we can learn and grow ourselves (as I believe) or does it only arise naturally, or both? The point was then made that empathy can and does arise naturally, but only if we share a culture** with the other person we're connecting to. 

This concept rings very true for me. When I see another person and we do any number of cultural acts together (I'm thinking of simple things like shaking hands or holding open a door) then I can more easily step into their shoes. Let's say I take a trip someplace far away, and I see another mom towing her child around. No matter how different looking and dressing and talking she is, something about her is familiar, and I can feel close to her without even thinking about it.  

So if shared culture and habits and behaviors can bring us together, why aren't I friends with everyone in my town? The group seemed to agree on one idea that keeps us apart. Fear. 

I do agree with them that fear is an obstacle - and most people would agree, I think, that fear can hold us back. The idea here is that it actually prevents us from connecting with each other. 

If I am afraid of you, it doesn't matter what cultural norms we share. The fear fills me up and can prevent me from seeing things from your point of view. I don't know why this is; perhaps it's because of our fight or flight instincts to survive. Perhaps it's because, like the Buddha's teachings say, that the strong emotion of fear takes up all the space in my mind that might otherwise be filled with compassion and empathy. I'm no longer at peace, and so I don't have any room left to see a life other than my own.

The rest of the talk was also great but I'll let you see that for yourself.

So what do you think? Does fear hold you back, is it keeping you from connecting to someone?


*Let's give some kudos to all of the people talking in this video (links to biographies):

Dr. Marco Iacoboni, Professor and Neurologist
Dr. Mary Hellen Immordino-Yang, Cognitive Neuroscientist and Professor
Dr. Robert Weller, Professor and Anthropologist
Dr. Adam Seligman, Professor of Sociology, Social Anthropology and Religion
Leslie Jamison, Author, PhD candidate at Yale University
Ben Doepke & the SEEK company (host)

** Here by "culture" I don't mean something intellectual. I'm talking about culture as behavior, I'm talking about how in some parts of the world looking someone in the eye is considered good and in other parts of the world it's considered bad. Anyone know more about sociology out there, and can help me to define culture more accurately, feel free to do so in the comments.


Earthshine said...

It's interesting to see the idea of fear as directly counter to empathy called out so directly. I say this for two reasons.

First, fear is a huge element of modern American mainstream culture. Our media cultivates it, and our economy thrives on it. I have no idea if such data exists out there, but i'd love to see some kind of reliable metric of how afraid people have been over the past few generations.

My second thought is related to the idea that the opposite of fear is faith. This is something else about which i'd love to see some trend data within our culture. It seems that the idea of faith in anything -- not just religion or spirituality, but even people or community -- is dwindling in many ways.

I could be very wrong about these trends, but if they were in fact true, it might suggest some very challenging times for empathy in our culture moving forward.

Janet said...

Thanks ES!

Your thoughts on fear are very cool, thank you for sharing. I believe that we've always been a little afraid of something. As people with squishy bodies (no armor or shell or sharp teeth) we can and do live in fear for our fragile bodies all the time. I think that's always been the case.

What I'm not talking about above, and what I think you may be getting at, is that we have lots of fear on a group level. We are not just fearful as individuals but fearful as a society. Is that right?

Also would love to hear more about the connection between faith and empathy. If I have faith; will that help me to have empathy? Are they related at all?