Rituals to Seduce Empathy

#ClearTheLens, #TakePublicTransit, #JuryDuty, #Volunteer, #BeHospitable

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Empathy is our greatest super power

The great religions often talk about some of human’s greatest virtues — faith, humility, kindness, generosity but I believe it is simple, boring, vanilla empathy, the simple capacity to put ourselves in another person’s shoes which is our greatest superpower. Empathy permits us to see beyond our tribal self-interests, a tendency programmed into our 100,000 year old genes (Thank you the Gene by Siddartha Mukherjee!) and facilitates some of our greatest feats of the future to come from cooperative behavioral change which will help mitigate the worst effects of climate change to basic consideration in the increasingly crowded urban centers that most of us will inhabit.

“Before you criticize a man, walk a mile in his shoes. That way, when you do criticize him, you’ll be a mile away and have his shoes” — Steve Martin, funnyman

. . . but it may be on the decline

Somewhat surprisingly, despite an unprecedented level of connectedness (thank you Facebook!), access to information and ability to travel, a landmark 2010 study from the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research suggests that this generation is 40% less empathetic than they were in 1979, with the steepest decline coming in the last 10 years.

As any millennial can tell you, the culprit is likely the seductive mobile phone that you are using to read this story (likely on the toilet, thank you Wi-Fi!). Yes, this mobile phone is designed to be be addictive — and an easy escape to real human interaction (my amazing father who I love will only pull out his mobile phone which he barely knows how to use during dinners with family).

Fortunately, as part of my ongoing belief that we can be rescued by simple rituals, I have put together the following list of simple rituals which I hope can seduce empathy as much as our phones can seduce us from looking each other in the eyes. This is by no means an exhaustive list so I welcome — neigh, I beg for your thoughts and ideas to this list below.

Ritual One. Clear the Lens. What//?!

Before you can walk in another person’s shoes, you have to make sure that your shoes are clean first. If you’re in Hawai’i or have access to a beach, surfing is my favorite way of purifying the mind since you’re both immersed in holy water and are required to keep your mind’s attention on the very difficult challenge of riding a wave. A good yoga class (I love Martine’s Power Yoga at Yoga Garden) is also a great way to de-clutter especially if you smile during the practice — I’ve found that it really helps to deepen them poses. Finally, find a nice quiet park, preferably with a view, open your palms and start clearing your mind.


Better yet, it is that randomness that can lead to serendipity — which is way cool.Ritual Two, Three, Four and Five. Opt in to Experiences Where You Can Collide with People Unlike You. Yes, That Means #TakePublicTransit, #JuryDuty, #Volunteer & Maybe #GoToChurch

Yes, the coolest people are not always found on Coffee Meets Bagel. More often, they can be standing right beside you — but you just don’t have a good way to say hi. I personally love keeping regular company with those outside of my normal circle of operations but it does take some effort to go beyond the reef.

One simple way is to opt in for public modes of transit — and that doesn’t mean Uber or Lyft. I know of a few folks who will never take public transit (who I will not name here) even if it’s faster because of the potential to be in close quarters with someone we’d rather not be in close quarters to.

Let me be clear. That public bus you take is worth more than your Tesla, is better for the environment, and you can take all of your friends without having to book your Line in advance.

Better yet, it is that randomness that can lead to serendipity — which is way cool at the end of a hectic workday.

Earlier this year, I had the genuine pleasure of being selected for jury duty in San Francisco. When I got the initial mailer, the almost universal reaction that I got from my peers was — “this is how you get out of it.” And during jury selection, I witnessed the multitude of excuses that my fellow citizens used to do just that — which was just embarrassing to watch and really lowered my respect for many of those of my ethnicity and my occupation — both who were among the strongest advocates for their own disqualification.

My experience on the jury not only breathed life into the legal system but it was filled with the usual courtroom drama of police and expert testimony. The defendant was put on the stand and we even got to submit questions to the witnesses. Perhaps one of the most overlooked parts of the experience however was the opportunity to be sequestered with 13 (12 + 2 alternates) other of my peers from my city who I would never have the chance to share a real formative experience with.

(Pro-tip. If you want to get chosen for your own courtroom drama / citizen duty, say as little as possible — the more you say, the more info the trial lawyers have to disqualify you.)

I’ve always been a big fan of community service although I’ll be the first to admit that it’s been a couple years since I’ve had a regular volunteer routine. When I first moved to San Francisco, I tried out almost every opportunity from food service at soup kitchens (I highly recommend the Sunday morning service at the Lutheran Church in Duboce) to park clean-ups to teaching 6th graders from East Oakland how to make their first million (with apps!).

“Service to others is the rent you pay for your space here on Earth” — Muhammad Ali

I always have found that service was the perfect way to ground me from my crazy first-world problems by connecting me deeply with folks from another community. It always leaves me deeply grateful for new unexpected friendships and for what I have.

If empathy is one the decline, then so is attendance at most religious institutions. I think a large part of the reason is that these institutions have a primary function of preserving age-old traditions — but as a result, have been slow to adapt to the changing needs of modern urban life. (Who can decide between church and a good workout on a Sunday morning?)

Thankfully, there are some new young leaders like my good friend, the Reverend Jay Williams, who are ushering a new kind of church that keeps up with our fast-changing society. Not only are his sermons fresh but they are online (which helps during the winter snowstorms in Boston). Sundays are not boring — they are music-filled celebrations of life, of community, of authenticity, of being the best you.

If you need a hug or want to give a hug, I recommend giving a Sunday celebration at Glide, perhaps the most progressive church in the US, a try — and you can see my favorite pastor there starting in the summer.


Ritual Six. Wear Clothing with Friendly Sayings.

Okay — this ritual is a bit silly but it’s on my list of current experiments. Quality Peoples is a clothing brand founded by a Hawaiian and a Mexican duo who makes high quality surf-inspired clothes that have simple messages that I think can start conversations in the most unlikely of places.

Every time I wear the sweater below, my co-worker Wei enthusiastically says “Hiiiiiiiiii!” Which means, I have stopped wearing them to work. I do have this strange theory that in a world of information overload, these simple affirmations are powerful beyond measure.

Ritual Seven. Be Hospitable Whenever You Can. Or As I Like To Say in Italian, “Aggungi Un Posta a Tavola, Che C’e Un Amico in Piu!”

One of my favorite experiences of the year so far was my first Passover Seder. Our good friend Jeff invited all his friends — believers or not — to celebrate the great escape from slavery that the Jewish people experienced many years ago, which almost all peoples can relate to.

For me, a whole new world of food, tradition, and culture was opened up and all it took was a simple invitation from a good friend. Hospitality is a trait that my good friends in places like Bangladesh are so good at (I will never forget being offered a stranger’s bed to sleep in after just meeting him an hour before) — and this is just a simple plug to always to remember to invite everyone you can to any event that you have space for. There’s always room for one more!

Ritual Eight. If All Else Fails, Read.

My friend and colleague Mark suggested reading as the most empathetic of the leisure activities. Without much effort, you can be transported into the life of a Bangladeshi youth in modern-day London (thanks Zadie Smith and White Teeth) to an arborealist who observes how trees communicate with each other in slow-time through scent (thank you Peter Wohlleben and the Hidden Life of Trees) to poor Gregory Mendel whose paper on pea genetics wasn’t discovered till long after his death (thanks Siddhartha Mukterjee and The Gene). Books, at their very best, take you inside a world from long ago or far away or never was — and at their worst, into the mind of another person, as talented or as untalented as they may be.

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