Empathy Challenge

This challenge has a purpose beyond personal improvement. I’ve heard it mentioned more than once that psychopaths have taken over (since those who are willing to do anything to succeed tend to get into positions of power more than those who have empathy and a sense of morality) and are destroying society and the world. As psychopaths are obviously very successful, what can non-psychopaths do to win back the power? What do non-psychopaths have that psychopaths don’t? Empathy!

Once before when I had become a particularly cranky person I stumbled on some blogs about how practicing empathy can help you solve relationship problems and I decided to try it. I spent a very short amount of time (no more than 10 minutes probably) thinking about how my son and husband were feeling – imagining being them. And I suddenly wasn’t cranky with them anymore. In fact I was more cranky with myself. I remember that for a while our house was very harmonious.

I’m not sure whether having harmonious homes could make ordinary people powerful enough to take on psychopaths but because of the relatively little effort it takes I think it would be worth trying. If we have one weapon that psychopaths don’t, why not try to develop it and find uses for it?

I can imagine that the commonly used divide and conquer trick would be less effective on a highly empathetic population. I also reckon we’d be better at cooperating, which is necessary when you don’t have the resources of the rich psychopaths.

Anyway, so my challenge is to spend 10 minutes a day feeling empathy. I will choose a different person each day and I can choose whoever I feel like choosing. Probably I will choose someone who has annoyed me that day. And I will write about what happens.

When I decided to try this challenge I imagined that I’d conclude what I already suspected. That empathy helps us get along better and maybe prevents some kids turning into psychopaths so that it is a bit like planting trees. Effort is highest at the beginning and rewards grow with time.

What I didn’t expect was that it would open a whole new world, or that it would take me such a long time to be able to gather these thoughts and attempt to articulate them. Or that just when I was on the cusp of being able to do this I would hear someone else explain much the same thing (as usual, someone else got there first!).

I empathised with people close to me, people I hardly know and with infamous people that I have never met but think I know a lot about. Although I never intended to only empathise with people who had made me angry, that was what I ended up doing. It was scarier to empathise with people who are close to me than with people I’d never met because it meant I’d have to look at myself from their point of view.

When I empathised with people in my family it was always prompted by me feeling angry that I carry too large a burden. It is true that my list of things to do never gets shorter despite my best efforts and sometimes when I’m tired I wish I didn’t have to be responsible for anyone else. I never wanted to be a “homemaker”, but I do most of the housework and that is probably the thing that makes me most cranky. Women and especially mothers are the default carers and cleaners – unless they can find someone who will do these jobs for them they end up being the ones who are left with them. If it weren’t that housework has been given a lower status than other jobs I might not feel like I’m being downtrodden. If I hadn’t been encouraged to think that doing things for others was a burden I might not feel angry either.

Applying a bit of empathy made me see that:

  • I only notice the jobs that are left for me to do – not the ones that other people always do.
  • I actually enjoy most of the jobs I do and perhaps I am the one who gets the most out of them. Housework gets you moving and is a good break from stressing out at a desk job.
  • I love my family and I want to do things for them.

If you fear becoming a doormat or look down on people who are doormats you may fear that empathy will make you weak, and because we live in a society where competition is the focus (rather than cooperation) we all want to be winners and fear being losers. The trouble is that in any competition there has to be losers (usually more losers than winners). You may not agree, but I believe that being able to help is real power – more powerful and more satisfying than forcing someone else to do what you want.

I found that the rewards of empathy are immediate, and they benefit me. If you don’t like being angry, try empathy. It makes anger disappear. It doesn’t matter if you get it wrong when you imagine what the person who annoyed you was thinking or feeling. The important thing is that you imagine being that person because then you will understand that they probably had a good reason to be the way they were – or at least as much reason as you have for the things you do.

I’d even go as far as saying that empathy is a good substitute for religion for people who don’t like the idea of religion. What else is being left-wing really about anyway? Imagine if everyone in the world was really just the same “spirit” but inside different bodies and the different circumstances associated with that. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” seems pretty clear then.

When I am not spending my energy being angry I can use it to think about things clearly – to be able to see how the particular conflict fits into everything else. Is it trivial or important? When I’m not busy thinking about how wrong the other person is (though that is so tempting, and so satisfying in the short term) I can move on to thinking about how the conflict could be resolved. What outcome do I want? What outcome do “they” want? Is it possible for everyone to be satisfied? What’s the fairest compromise? How could the conflict have been avoided?

The thing I realise I cannot do very well (nor can most people) is work out what the core of the problem is and to be able to communicate it in such a way that I don’t just make people angry or defensive. It is easier to see how other people should have communicated to me than to be able to work out how I could have communicated better because my emotions get mixed in. When someone does something that upsets me or makes my life difficult I want them to know that I am annoyed. There is some satisfaction in telling them that they are wrong and being able to yell it out and for people to see that I am angry (and maybe look scared). But is that going to work? It will if they are scared of me. Otherwise it won’t.

An example of a conflict that could have done with a dose of empathy was one that I witnessed at a jumping castle. The lady in charge of taking money for the castle ($3 per child for 15 minutes of jumping) was telling a lady that her son had been on the castle for 30 minutes. The lady responded “What do you want me to do? Tell him to get off? You want me to tell him to get off?” and then she did tell her son to get off, and her other kid too, explaining loudly that the lady was wrong about him having been on there too long but that they were going anyway.

Then a man, who I assume was the father of the kids and/or partner of the mother, became involved. He told the lady running the jumping castle that the kids had only been on there long enough for him to go and get a Chai, which couldn’t have been more than five minutes, and then went on to say that the goodwill and community support she was losing by getting their kids to get off the castle was worth more than the cost of 15 minutes of jumping and that she was wrong. His voice was quite loud by the end and the lady in charge of the castle was repeating “Ok, I’m wrong” over and over, probably hoping it would make the argument end sooner.

After seeing that argument I realised how satisfying it is to be able to blame someone else for something that went wrong. Being able to personally convict someone of an offence and label them as a bad person (and having it on their record to influence future expectations) just feels like the right thing to do. And if everyone else is wrong, then it must make me being right even more special. But what about when someone does that to me? If one day I do something that isn’t nice (deliberately or due to thoughtlessness) would it be fair to be labelled as a bad person? Would I like people to say “Oh, but she’s just like that, what did you expect?”? If I annoy someone is it ok for them to say it was all my fault? Or to wish I hadn’t be born?

I can see the danger in someone who is being treated badly using empathy to let the abuser off lightly, and I’ve read how caring too much is the curse of the working class, so empathy is something to be used thoughtfully. It needs to be used more generously on those who deserve it than on those who do not. But if you have worked out that a person deserves empathy, I think it should be used on them. And it doesn’t stop there.

It was while listening to Bob Brown respond to criticism that he was just as able to play politics as others in parliament (http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/lifematters/optimism3a-bob-brown/5646720) that I realised he’d already worked out that having empathy can make you stronger not weaker. In a funny way it makes you closer to the non-caring psychopath because when you can see through your anger to the facts you can be more ingenious and cunning – you become a more evenly matched opponent, but one that is fighting for something good.

One of the infamous people I spent quite a bit of time empathising with was Rupert Murdoch, because I am angry that he has such a large influence over politics as well as public opinion, and I think it is such a waste that such influence is used for bad instead of good.

I imagined a young Rupert Murdoch feeling looked down upon by the intellectual elite and thinking “I’m going to show you!”, and hasn’t he ever? Now money is a more powerful influence on political decisions than science or expertise. The intellectual elite are now all brains and no claws – able to know everything but do nothing.

I imagine the delight a kid who was not classed as intelligent by the kind of tests done at school when he grows up into a “bogan” who can afford a better house than a University Professor and I get cranky with the school system that focuses on competition, because that is not what life is about (it is about getting along with each other and getting things done TOGETHER) and because it means that most of the kids will end up feeling that they aren’t very smart.

No wonder there isn’t as much enthusiasm for limiting financial inequality as you’d expect. If you take away the potential for someone who has been excluded from the intellectual elite to become super rich then you are taking away the potential for them to climb the class ladder because they’ve been made to believe that you are either clever or you aren’t (and it can’t be changed), but that with hard work you can become rich. And you become sceptical of the motivations behind the quest for financial equality – it would mean that other kinds of inequality such as superior intelligence would become so much more influential.

Imagine if instead, science and other “academic” passions were more like gardening – open to anyone and embracing enthusiasm more than anything else. Maybe then Rupert Murdoch’s media empire would provide us with visions of utopia and practical ways to get there.



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