How we can become better empaths in a thoughtless age — for the betterment of ourselves and everyone around us.
Empathy is three-dimensional, it can be extended through time and space. Through the power of human imagination, it is possible to connect, empathetically, with people vastly different than our tribe, living in vastly different places, at totally different times. However, while it is possible to bring future empathy to bear — “for the sake of the children,” that is actually a harder form of empathy to practice than one which looks the other direction.
It’s not easy to empathize with our future generations (imagine their predicaments, sure, but actual empathizing is more difficult). We can, however, learn to connect with people in the past. How? One path is through the study of history.
I am already a strong proponent of everyone being taught history as a matter of course, but this perspective tackles a new way of exploring history. By teaching and studying history empathetically; by having students connect, on an empathetic level, to the intimate lives of people hundreds or thousands of years dead, we can help them expand their ability to feel empathy across both time and space, simultaneously. And, when we study history for ourselves, we can change our internal perceptions without having to give up our sense of autonomy to an educator.
I believe that one of the reasons why it’s hard for someone to experience empathy for far-flung peoples in the future is that there is a lack of personal context.
Some anthropological studies of human social development suggest that we evolved with the capacity to only form intimate bonds with a relatively small number of people at any given time. Out of this, there comes a tendency to form cliques. To identify with someone based on very shallow markers (such as skin color, language, or favorite a sports team). Within this small group, we are able to form empathetic bonds with relative ease (though the strength of these native bonds may be questionable). What we see, here, is a context surrounding the people we care about; to empathize, we require context.
And studying history provides context (or, at least, it has the potential to do so, if studied as more than an assemblage of random dates and place-names). Through a detailed exploration of history, with a concentration on how it might have felt to experience some of those historical events, a student can begin to come to grips with their empathetic self — by seeing themselves in the position of the historical figure; by first sympathizing with the conditions, then empathizing with the individuals.
Within a fictional story the full context is provided for the reader — often with an application of narrative mystery — and so the reader is able to understand, intimately, the details of the circumstances of the characters’ lives. Science fiction, then, if well-written, may be one of the best vehicles for delivering its reader into the arms of empathetic connection with the future, because it builds the context of some future state in such detail that it removes the abstract and places the reader directly into the context. No longer must we rely upon the old line about “saving the world for our grandchildren — ” because, for many people, that is simply too amorphous a goal to hold serious emotional weight. This is not an individual flaw, mind, but merely a lack of training in the use of empathetic imagination — of being able to feel with someone outside of our close tribe.
So, this is why I believe that an empathetically-concentrated study of history is important. Since history deals with people who were, at one time, real it requires even less imaginative reaching to empathize with them. Then there is the added weight that many issues visible through a study of history are still with us today. Someone who reads into the history of slavery, at a detailed level and with the intention of exploring it empathetically, is likely to recognize that the damages done to the slave ancestors remain with their descendants, and therefore to whole demographics of modern society. They are more likely to take a closer look at modern slave trafficking problems with the mindset of what it’s like to actually experience those things.
Is all Empathy Equal?
In a video Roman Krznaric, the famed social philosopher, did for the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce he made a very important point regarding experiential empathy. Near the end of the question and answer period, a man raised an important point regarding empathy: that it might easily slip into a place of falsehood. A place where, while you believe you are connecting empathetically, you are, in fact, operating solely from your own internal assumptions about a situation; in this state, you are actually divorced from the real experiences of those you are trying to empathize with. In this place, no amount of communication skill will actually help you connect with other people — and people you try to connect with will generally feel misunderstood by you. Real empathy means “getting into the shoes of the people you’re trying to empathize with” — this can, and will, be uncomfortable, but it is also the only way forward if you wish to have a genuine connection with another human being. Those uncomfortable moments are also perfect times to practice self-empathy and compassion.
“We would do well to commiserate our mutual ignorance, and endeavor to remove it in all the gentle and fair ways of information, and not instantly treat others ill as obstinate and perverse because they will not renounce their own and receive our opinions, or at least those we would force upon them, when it is more than probable that we are no less obstinate in not embracing some of theirs. For where is the man that has uncontestable evidence of the truth of all that he holds, or of the falsehood of all he condemns; or can say, that he has examined to the bottom all his own or other men’s opinions? The necessity of believing without knowledge, nay, often upon very slight grounds, in this fleeting state of action and blindness we are in, should make us more busy and careful to inform ourselves than to restrain others. . . . There is reason to think, that if men were better instructed themselves, they would be less imposing on others.” (Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book IV, Ch. XVI, Sec. 4.)
In the above, noted philosopher John Locke was talking about the importance of greater reason within all individuals. He ends by suggesting that, if the ability to reason, as well as the overall breadth and depth of knowledge, is increased in all people, then all people would be less inclined to attempt to try and force others to believe something. He suggests that, if this widespread learning were to occur, people might begin to concentrate more on how to come to the best, mutual, understanding, rather than what is best merely for one side. While including Locke is a bit of a joke on my part, I do believe that this is much the same case for the growth and impact of empathy.
Empathy is a practicable skill; in order to become adept at empathetic introspection, communication, and connectivity, one must first train in those gauntlets of empathy which are available to us all: namely those which I have previously mentioned, fiction and history. Of course, it is not merely enough to study history or read fiction, when exploring either of these areas we must take care to remain mindful of the need to connect to the material before us with an empathetic eye.
Part of this practice, too, becomes an active engagement in the world around us. And, if we’re going to be active and engaged in a way that creates greater good, then we need to learn how to interact with people (especially people who are different than ourselves) in ways that foster growth and cooperation rather than their opposite. The practice of empathy allows us to treat ourselves with compassion as well as the world we interact with. Compassion might be understood as the active form of empathy, something which develops from an active exploration and practice of empathy. Empathy is also the best groundwork for positive communication; as citizens of a highly connected world, we need to learn how to be excellent communicators, not only for the betterment of all people, but for our own wellbeing.