When empathy rarely extends beyond our line of sight

My friend who works for a television network jokes that most actors read scripts like this.

Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit, my line, bullshit, bullshit, my line.

It’s a silly but truthful example of how empathy is not natural, it is learned. Like most emotional skills, it requires imagination, practice and encouragement. Deliberate and conscious development. Which is probably why empathy has been in increasingly short supply over the past few decades.

Konrath’s widely cited psychological research analyzed the data on empathy among almost fourteen thousand college students over the last thirty years. Her team found that students today are forty percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of twenty or thirty years ago, as measured by standard tests of this personality trait.

Why is this the case? It’s hard to tell.

Maybe people lack empathy because of social media, video games and death metal. Maybe people are not empathetic because they simply don’t want to be, haven’t had to be, or because it’s been to their advantage not to be.

Either way, what matters more than why we lack it is what steps we can take to expand it. Because make no mistake. Our society’s lack of empathy is the single thing that creates the most amount of evil in this world. It doesn’t matter if you’re a lawmaker, lawbreaker, or abiding citizen somewhere in the middle, when we lack ability to understand and share the feelings of another, we make things worse.

Schiffman, a novelist and entrepreneur, wrote a lovely piece about this issue of empathy:

There are strong empirical arguments to be made that humans are hardwired to be selfish. But whether unnatural or fighting against hardwired instincts, humans have been capable of enormous degrees of empathy throughout our history.

And so, at a minimum, we can think of empathy as aspirational, and take a pragmatic approach to it. Empathy cannot win out in every situation, but we should be morally obliged to try.

For example, imagine having a face to face conversation with someone you completely disagree with. Before digging in your heels and fighting back so you can win the conversation, try this.

Find out how they’re right. Ask yourself, okay, what is a sensible worldview in which what they believe makes sense? If this person is not stupid, why would they believe this?

This practice requires imagination and patience, but it won’t cost you anything. You don’t even have to tell the other person you’re doing it. Just have a conversation with yourself about why they might be right. Practice accommodating a small change on short notice. It’s life giving for the relationship.

What degree of compromise are you willing to live with? What degree of adjustment to your relationships are you willing to make that allows you to live with yourself?

In a world where evolution leads empathy to rarely extend beyond our line of sight, perhaps it’s time we get more proactive. 

What are you doing to work out your own brand of compromise with people in your life?


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Author. Speaker. Strategist. Songwriter. Filmmaker. Inventor. Gameshow Host. World Record Holder. I also wear a nametag 24-7. Even to bed.
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