Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Everyday Catastrophic Empathy Failure

Every day, when I walk from my day job to the bus stop, there's a weirdly-shaped T-intersection that I have to cross. That is to say, I have to cross the "stem" of the "T" with the road forming the top of the "T" at my right.

Oftentimes, when I'm waiting to cross, some helpful driver coming up on my left will wait for me at the intersection and signal to me that it's okay for me to go. However, these drivers don't generally bother to look around and consider whether or not it's safe for me to cross based on the traffic coming from the rest of the intersection - in many cases, it is not. So they signal me again, looking increasingly confused and impatient over the fact that I'm just standing there and waiting...until I point to the semi truck that they're encouraging me to walk smack into.

I refer to this sort of incident as everyday catastrophic empathy failure. "Everyday," because it's very common, and "catastrophic" because it makes me think: if we humans are having that much trouble empathizing in a situation THAT obvious, how disastrous is our lack of empathy when the differences between us are more complicated? Harmonious communication and interaction requires that we be able to put ourselves in one another's shoes, but far too often, we stay resolutely stuck in our own, expecting that others meet us there, confused by behavior that we've only bothered to consider from our own point of view.  ..and we don't realize it!

As a married woman, my relationship with my husband reminds me every day of just how far the empathy distance between two people can be. Don't get me wrong - I think he and I are pretty darn successful when it comes to understanding one another, but I'm learning that even with a strong devotion to imagination and empathy, truly understanding anyone else is a lifelong journey. There are always more things to consider, more layers to be unraveled, and opening each new door can lead to discovering that the whole place is way bigger than you ever imagined.

So why is it so hard?

To answer that question, I'm going to cite a little-known fact about the human race: we haven't been civilized for very long. Human beings, in our current biological stage of development, have lived on the planet for about 100,000 years, but we've only had cities and agriculture and civilization for the last 10% of that time. Before that, for most of our natural history and all of the millions of years we spent evolving, we lived in small, close-knit tribes. As such, our life experiences weren't all that different from one another's and we didn't have to invest much imagination in understanding what anyone else was feeling at any given time.

But then, we started to overrun the planet, so we built complex systems of farming and government in order to deal with this fact. That, I believe, was the start of our empathy failure. Our brains weren't necessarily built to deal with such complex levels of interaction, or at least, it doesn't come all that easily to us. We expect it to be fairly natural and easy to understand the motivations of others and have our own motivations understood.

Knowing this fact - that it's harder than it should be - helps me a lot with the process of understanding others.   This is because what's truly difficult is not the imaginative exercise itself, but simply forcing myself to do it in the first place. I don't WANT to be understanding towards someone else, first, I want THEM to do it for me! This sort of impulse is also connected to the illusion of transparency - the idea that our own feelings are more obvious and visible to others than they really are. (Again, when you consider the tribal evolutionary environment, this makes a great deal of sense.)

The more I battle this fearful impulse, the more I push myself past the fear of being the first to be understanding and thereby, make myself vulnerable, the more I am rewarded for it. Over and over I discover that this is an instinct for another time and place, and I don't need it, now. Understanding in me begets understanding in others, however uncomfortable or difficult it is to cultivate that habit.

And make no is. Do it anyway.

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