How to do Empathy?

Books published recently have made the case either for or against empathy. A former colleague and friend, Jamil Zaki, published “The War for Kindness“, subtitled “Building Empathy in a Fractured World.” Paul Bloom, a researcher at Yale University, published “Against Empathy“. They even engaged one another on occasion. This question still remains for me: when is it constructive and useful to “do empathy?”

The reason this question is so important—for me at least—is that empathy offers one of the few, and maybe the only, way to create the motivation for accepting, and ultimately maybe understanding, fundamental differences in experience. And with that motivation also comes the desire for mutuality and cooperation.

To illustrate this, I will explore an experience I had the other day: an email my oldest brother sent me reminded me of music I heard growing up as a child, and I spent a few hours going down memory lane. One of the songs that stuck out for me is called “Das Lied von Manuel” (The song of Manuel). And, yes, that’s the kind of music I grew up with (cringe?).

The song speaks of a boy, Manuel, who moves from the Spanish region of Castile to Germany with his parents. The choir represents the children in his new neighborhood: “we recognize your voice, we recognize your face, but we don’t like you at all.” As a side note… I guess when I was a boy myself, I had no qualms with that sentiment of not liking someone simply for their difference in appearance. At least I do not have any memories of feeling “bad” for Manuel’s initial condition, facing difficulties integrating and making friends.

The song then speaks of a little girl in Manuel’s neighborhood, Hannelore, whose heart is failing. Manuel goes to her parents to talk to them. The children in the neighborhood ask him what he said. He explains that he knows of someone in America, who could help Hannelore, and that he will give a concert to collect enough money, just for her to travel there, so as to receive the necessary treatment. The children’s response: “we like your voice way more than before, and now we really like you!”

When I listened to the song again a few days ago, with an entirely different awareness, a complex mix of emotions stirred inside of me. Having moved from my country of origin to New York in 2008, I certainly could contrast the experience described in the song with my own. At no point was I given the impression people did not like me. In the song, it seems that for Manuel to become someone the children in his neighborhood care about, he needs to demonstrate his value—a mini meritocracy of sorts.

The top comment speaks to the somewhat jarring experience I, and some of the listeners, had: “Am I getting this right? They are mobbing him, but once he gives them the money to go to America, they love him?” And one of the responses goes a bit further, “(…) that was totally normal; back then children of migrant workers had to prove themselves to be accepted. (…) Today it would be unthinkable to sing so cheerily about this.”

Which brings me to the question of “how to do empathy?” And what are the requirements for empathy to succeed, rather than create additional problems? I believe it is beneficial to be able to connect to the experience of other people—including the people who wrote the song, who performed the song, who listened to the song back then, who listen to it now, and who either like or dislike it because of what it says about German culture in the 1970s.

The second quoted comment gives a hint: around the time when the song was recorded, people still felt that such a narrative was “normal”, whereas today people would feel a kind of cringe around it. My intuition is that one of the more important factors that has changed is an overall experience of relaxation around issues of security, economic and otherwise.

A book that I’m currently reading, “The Soul of Money” by Lynne Twist, brought back the image of sufficiency I experienced in Brené Brown’s “Daring Greatly“. So long as we experience ourselves to be chasing the means for our security and safety—because we feel that we do not have enough to secure it—empathy is a double-edged sword.

It can open our hearts to the less fortunate. But the sense of sharing an experience of the eternal hamster wheel, of never having enough, potentially comes with a source of anger and moral outrage at those who are perceived to be in charge. And for people who see themselves as privileged, empathy can lead to a willingness to make concessions, even if those do not address the actual cause of the issues.

How does this matter? I see at least two current conflicts in which people either fail to show empathy or show it in ways that—in my opinion—fail to address the underlying issue. Immigration into the United States remains difficult to discuss because those who believe it to be an economic threat have a hard time to extend warm, welcoming feelings towards anyone arriving here who does not immediately contribute in meritocratic ways. And those who do have those warm, welcoming feelings have a hard time relating to those who feel differently.

The second conflict, which I perceive as still heating up, is around social justice issues expressed most strongly by young people who went through 4-year college in the last 10, 15 years. Here, a good book explaining how this generation experiences things might be “Can’t Even” by Anne Helen Petersen. The outlook and expectations that younger people carry with them creates a yearning for solidarity with everyone who is treated in inhumane ways by a system that does not seem to care about people at all. And whoever defends that system becomes an enemy.

Both conflicts, immigration and social justice issues as expressed by the younger generations, will—if my intuition is correct—remain insoluble so long as we do not get at the root cause: the experience of insufficiency, of not having enough to be secure. And empathy that emerges out of an experience of insufficiency, either personal or in the wider society, very likely comes with a heavy price of anger and rage or guilt and shame, depending on which side one sees oneself on.

This experience of insufficiency is an obstacle preventing wholesome empathy for people whose behaviors or attitude we see as different from our own. And whenever I see an expression of moral indignation or outrage, I suspect a feeling of insufficiency somewhere.

Conversely, I want to become increasingly aware that for my own empathy to do real good, it helps to come out of a sense of “enoughness”, where I do not have to worry about resources. Otherwise, sooner or later, alarm bells will go off, looking for “the bad guy” who creates the lack in resources, and who needs to pay.

1 comment

  1. What an excellent essay! I am going to reflect on the question, “what allows for the experience of enoughness?”

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