The first thing to recognize is that these people do not seem to actually, physically exist. Everyone deserves it. At some point, everyone needs it. It should be out goal to give it freely and our hope that others do the same. Empathy can be difficult and it is certainly misunderstood. It is also one of the greatest, most important skills you can have towards a kinder, more cooperative world.
So let me begin by saying that I have significant empathetic failings before sidestepping that fact to explain issues important to empathy and how I have planned/will continue to implement them.
Without empathy, true understanding is not possible. It represents the difference between knowing something and getting it. I might know that the victims of violent crimes feel a sense of helplessness or might even experience PTSD or similar symptoms, but without empathy, it is never more than a flat fact. Empathy allows for understanding. Empathy allows us to make the fact human.
This is not to say that empathy is default or that by empathizing you will automatically agree or permanently see from X person’s point of view. You will only be capable of doing so.
Empathy is often seen as a prosocial behavior and if the plethora of blogs, stories, and essays posted daily dealing with empathy are any indication (they are) then you can safely say that the ability to empathize is of central importance to our daily lives.
Empathy tends to breakdown into two components, emotional and cognitive. One without the other can be problematic, so I’d like to think about both in concert.
Emotional empathy is about being able to identify and share the feelings of others, be that your SO, your best friend, your enemy, or a stranger. In theory, all one should need to do to identify and share is first listen, then care. In practice, this is not always the case. Just as every person deserves empathy, every person can be unique in a million different ways pertaining to their interpersonal skills. Personality disorders present some empathic difficulties, but so too do rough conditions in upbringing, political divisions, and the state of one’s life needs being met, to name a few. Listening is the biggie here and listening means more than hearing and judging. It means actively listening. If you’re listening to family talk about something they often experience and relate, maybe you’ve heard this story before. Or maybe you’ve fought recently and that comes to mind. Maybe you think they are approaching a problem or a feeling incorrectly (side note: short of self-harm, do not suppose that you know the correct way to address any feeling). But you (and I, because this is somewhere I fail at times) must stop, because that isn’t listening. It’s judging and it steps into the attempt to empathize and messes up the place. Instead, take the words as they come, place them into context, and dismiss your reactions to them. For now, only listen.
Maybe you are listening, though, and the person is experiencing something difficult to convey or you’re just not getting it. There is a lot of research to indicate that physically mirroring someone can help to place you in their state of mind. Keeping in mind that body language can be just as important to the listener as is your pretense, you can try to mirror their stature, position, and facial expressions to kick start motor neuron imitation and get you a little closer to their state of mind.
Which brings us to the cognitive portion of empathy. If you’re someone who readily understands emotions, perhaps this is where you have difficulties. I know it often is for me. This is the point at which I often step back from the person with whom I should be empathizing and instead consider their feelings from my own POV. I shouldn’t do it and neither should you.
This is a strange point for me because I often find it effortless to empathize with fictional characters or far off/abstract people while I have to make an effort to empathize with the person right in front of me, often a loved one. The issue, I think, may be a mixture of burnout and frame of reference. Burnout because this is a person with whom I engage regularly, while the Other, the character, the person in Australia is in a different part of the world, I don’t know them, and I’m willing to allow for a lot more variance in lifestyle and emotion. The frame of reference follows immediately, because when someone is of the same culture, location, age, perhaps even sex and gender, it can be much easier to think that they see the world much as you do and thus your response might work for them. This presupposes too much, including the idea that you own Theory of Mind is mirrored by theirs. So very much goes into understanding the mind of another and assuming that it is like your own is an almost sure-fire way of missing the mark.
To be sure, these things are neither automatic nor necessarily easy. There is a good deal of research to support a predisposition towards empathy and just as much to assert there is not. We often find gender differences only to turn around and find that we’ve measured the wrong part in emotional response or that we’ve only tested for social, rather than innate, attitudes. It seems the better approach may be empathy as skill, regardless of how well one empathizes to begin with. Perhaps the more intelligent approach is to work actively at empathizing so that, in the best case, you only get better with time and in the worst, you are making progress towards engaging people in a helpful, hopeful, and kind manner.
As with many talks about self-discipline and how we engage with others, I’m reminded of David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, as related in the short film “This is Water”. If you’ve not seen it, I recommend watching it a few dozen times. It is perhaps one of the best bits of personal improvement advice I’ve ever heard. It comes to mind because Wallace points out how easy and automatically we can suppose the worst of someone. Inside our own minds, it is quite easy to suppose that someone is being a jerk, or inconsiderate, or oblivious. In the example of being stuck behind someone in traffic, he urged the students of the class of 2005 to take a moment to imagine that the person in front of you might be considering far more than you realize: “It’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past and now find driving so traumatic that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive … Not that that … stuff’s necessarily true: The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.”
It may seem a stretch in the wrong direction, but Wallace’s point that “[the] only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it” barest a repeat. This is perhaps one of the few capital-T true things about the human condition. It is up to the viewer to perceive as they wish and to do so with consideration of the rest of humanity. You can choose to be empathetic. It is necessary and like many things that are, it isn’t automatic.
What is initially active will become easy and automatic in time. Empathy can be treated as a skill for one to work on until the purposeful actions and thoughts become second-nature. In the meantime, focus on all that is gained in the attempt.
We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, ‘You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise you will threaten the man.’ Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important. Now marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support. But why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same? We raise girls to see each other as competitors – not for jobs or for accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men. We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are.
(Source: donatellavevo, via housingworksbookstore)
Just Six Months After the Olympics, Sochi Looks Like a Ghost Town -
New world game wastes. This kind of folly is why we ought to establish a set of reusable locations for international sporting events.
My greatest aspiration as a five year old child was to be a paleontology and to every one I told that I had to explain the meaning of the word.
I founded a non-profit in college which I now find distasteful and needless. It was a scholarship incorporated under The Vega Society.
I grew up under the eye of a kind but exceedingly judgmental and coarse sect of Christianity. I was uncomfortable wearing shots until well into adulthood.
I’ve taken a few breaks from writing lately. First, and most significantly, I took the month of the Cup off. That time encompassed some strange feelings, not least among them the realization of just how easy it is to break a year and a half old habit. Less surprising was the want to get back to things. Phew.
I’ve also broken from writing quite so many updates on the status of the series and now that I’ve hit a new new, I’d like to take this moment.
Coming out of the month’s hiatus, I reread the entirety of the second books. Lots of issues to address and few of them fun, but I took copious notes and set it aside again. I know with absolute certainty that I will regret this in some fashion. I want to get all three novels, the current one included, into a near second draft stage before I set into the bulk of edits. If it is a mistake—as it feels—its one I am going into consciously. That much massive editing, just six months or so in the future, does not promise great fun, but I want a tight thematic arch across the trilogy and I don’t think I’ll find it satisfactory if I rush into the novels too quickly. I’m all the time figuring out what they’re actually about.
After that, I spent a little time crafting a story out of a couple of Writing Excuses exercise as a way of getting into something a bit more fun after the read-through.
For the past two weeks, I’ve sketched characters, made rough plot lines, and bulleted significant milieu changes I wish to institute in the final book of the series. I decided to give myself exactly two weeks, no more or less, and also to allow for a bit more discovery in this final volume. I’ve only very loosely plotted the first nine or so chapters.
But that does not constitute a great enough change to get me writing about writing again. Rather, it’s the will, perhaps the wish, to procrastinate. I’d hesitate to point to any particular states of mind or body that might be provoking this, but for the past week I’ve actually found legitimately difficult to begin writing in the morning. I have plans, I leave the story where I know the next few steps, I think periodically about what comes in the next few paces, yet when I sit down almost anything else will do. I’ve never experienced this before in work I do for myself and it’s not specific to writing—I’ve been putting off certification studying as well—but it is certainly worse in this than in other endeavors.
Hoping it passes or that at the very least routine wins the day.
Are you a procrastinator and if so, how does it affect you? Is it manageable? Is it regular? What exacerbates it?
EDIT: Immediately upon finishing this post, I recalled a Salon post from this morning and went back and deleted all double spaces following periods. Follow-up question: How many of you double space needlessly because of confusing or flat out incorrect instruction as a student?
As I said, I loved Guardians of the Galaxy. My lady and I went together and we both did. Maybe me a little more, but superheroes and space opera? Definitely more my thing.
Chelsea had just one bone to pick and it regarded Zoe Saldana. Nothing bad about her Guardian performance, exactly, but a trend in her career that she finds problematic. In Avatar, both recent Star Trek films, and Guardians, she seems to play a bad ass lady in very much the same way. Hair, attitude, personality, gender relations, they all seem to be pretty much the same. And Zoe Saldana is a traditionally attractive woman. None of this is bad per say, but it augments a long standing archetype in how Hollywood portrays its few leading women. Rather than embracing modern popular cinema as an opportunity to broaden how women are portrayed on the screen, the shallow range of leading women advances and cements the same old expectations and pigeon-holes women, young and old alike, into the same old roles rather than let them branch out and—I dunno—maybe flesh out the vast variety of women that actually exist.
Fast forward one week. We both work in jobs that allow a little spare time on Fridays and she sent me this as illustration of others sharing the same view, specifically in regards to Zoe Saldana. I rather enjoyed the brief conversation that followed and below is an edited version.
Perfect and on point. The thing about James Cameron asking if people wanted to “do” the Avatar ladies is disgusting but maybe there is some small benefit in his being explicit. So much of this male gaze crap comes from people who think they’re operating on some higher social plane and then we still only get traditionally attractive bad ass ladies, to say nothing of other female or neuter archetypes.
Orange is the New Black did a really great job with their casting. Lots of body and personality types and people all over the range in terms of traditional attractiveness. And everyone loves that show. I wish Hollywood would tune into our non-reptilian brains and see that we like stories about people, not stories about (and for) dudes.
I feel if anything, in playing the same “other” (aka female alien) over and over she has actually LIMITED our view on women, not broadened. Women = hot, feisty, sexualized aliens. You can easily transpose that stereotype with our portrayal as women as witches, bosses, etc. There is nothing new here, and it’s just reinforcing it as we try to change it. I appreciate her enjoyment of the role, but she is not expanding any horizons on the female front.
Maybe fan conversations can start to change that. Though, I don’t know how engaged with fan Zoe Saldana is.
The other day I was thinking about A Million Ways to Die in the West, and if the story hadn’t been strictly satire of the Western film genre, Anna could have been a legitimate, fully-rounded, authentic female role. She’s not necessarily a tomboy (although they do a lot to make her contrast against Louise), and she’s not necessarily a “girly girl.” She’s feminine and masculine, sweet and upfront, witty and vulnerable. She pairs well with the male lead not because she’s a woman and there, but because they have honest chemistry and develop a realistic relationship over time. It’s believable. I was impressed by that.
I agree. She was really interesting and broke my expectations a couple of times.
Now that I think about it, Seth MacFarlane usually does good job at playing with stereotypes and gender expectations to subvert them without relying purely on cheap jokes. He has good co-writers and works with lots of different people, aggregating their ideas into his very popular style. It can be hard to see in single episodes of his shows, which often make terribly sexist (or other -ist) jokes without explanation. Over the arch of his characters, though, he shows a lot of respect for difference.
Not all the time, of course. There are times when purely sexist or religious jokes go too far without much promise. It’s really a shame A Million Ways wasn’t a better film because character-wise it was pretty strong. Only maybe 3 or 4 full characters, but that can be rare for even the best comedies.
We do women and men alike a disservice by showing either through a shallow, greased lens. Time and again, media consumers show that they want a plurality of voices and, even more so, that they don’t need their hands held through exposure to new ideas. Guardians of the Galaxy was great. Let’s make the sequel even better. Better yet, let’s apply the women-are-human-beings-too mantra to all popular cinema. I bet it won’t hurt too much.