Our aggressive betterness

I am working on another post that asks for empathy, and I started thinking about why empathy is so hard. There are numerous theories –evolutionary, societal, experiential, neurological– about why empathy is hard for people to both understand and practice. I figured in a crowded field, what’s one more blade of grass.

Empathy is hard to practice because empathy is hard. It requires a great deal of complete focused attention, on someone else. It takes time. It requires reflection, cognition, and presence in the moment. Empathy may cause unpredictable emotional responses that you have to accept, deal with, and not make the other person responsible for. Empathy is work, and it is tiring, and there usually isn’t anyone around to tell you that you’re doing it right. The rewards for empathy are invaluable, but they are intangible and undervalued in our society.

Empathy is hard to understand for as many reasons as there are individuals on the planet. The most salient to me is that it is not taught. If we do not understand or practice empathy ourselves, how can we pass it on? Because it is not valued, it is not modeled. And with few –perhaps non-mainstream– positive examples, and almost no media coverage, it is rapidly lost.

I think many people explore and even come close to empathy, but get derailed by our aggressive betterness.

If you are alive, I hope you have at least one most loyal, trusted friend. This is a person with whom you practice empathy effortlessly without even noticing (good job by the way!). When you get together you take turns listening, and sometimes, with joyous or awful news, you have this uncomfortable-but-beautiful moment of duality: you are aware of and grateful for the circumstances of your own life, but able to touch a memory or experience that mirrors the pain or pleasure your friend is feeling. You find that space in yourself when you were terrified, worried about a love one, overjoyed at the birth of your daughter, angry at your ex, etc. and you trust in your common humanity that your friend’s fear is of the same magnitude and truth as yours was. You sincerely want the best for them because you know how it felt for you when you came out the other side. Empathy.

Many of us approach this space. We go willingly and easily with close friends, but even with those we love we sometimes get pulled off course because we are constantly told that we are not succeeding unless our life is ‘better’ than someone else’s.

I think this holds us back the most when the moment is one that finds multiple humans on equal footing: like trying to make room for a diversity of lifestyles in the definition of ‘success,’ or trying to understand another race, gender, or sexual orientation perspective on a new policy.

Example: You have three children. At a regular catch up with your best friend he expresses his relief, pleasure, and satisfaction that he and his wife both decided to get surgically sterilized, and children are completely off the table, unless, y’know someday, they decide to adopt.

Empathy would take you to a moment before you and your partner had children and your favorite pleasure of that time. You might flash on the faces of your three little monkeys and express a moment of gratitude for their health, then smile, clink glasses and sit in that joy with your friend.

But many of us get lost in: “Not having children. I didn’t even think of that. Why didn’t I think of that? Is that allowed? Where would I be now if I didn’t have kids? Oh my gosh, I think I’m a little jealous. I would love to have sex with my boo without having to worry about us getting knocked up. I’m having a moment of insecurity about that choices I made, so I can’t enjoy this with you. I don’t want to feel insecure, I want to feel successful. Let me build up what I’m doing so my friend knows my life is better.” And empathy can’t get a word in edgewise.

An hour later, on the drive home, after a sort of awkward parting you reflect on the experiences he will never have since he won’t have kids. You wonder, perhaps jokingly, if you’ll have to be the one who takes care of him in his old age. You realize he will have experiences of being an adult that you won’t, and suddenly remember how cool that is: like when he majored in political science and you stuck to chemistry; and he did the semester in Africa, while you went to Oxford. He had so many great stories to tell, but totally envied your direct, major carrier flights and new knowledge of Indian food. You wouldn’t give up his friendship for the world, but you couldn’t risk a fleeting moment of insecurity to value and validate his choices about how to be a successful adult?

Perfect is the enemy of good. Better seems to be the enemy of equal. Success is not relative; celebrate others’ and you might better realize your own.


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