A Few Words on Empathy

Recently, a friend re-shared this lovely little video from 2016 illustrating a Brené Brown talk on the distinction between sympathy and empathy. To over-simplify Dr. Brown’s point, it’s not exactly the distinction we were taught in grade school—that empathy is something you feel if you’ve been there—but instead, empathy is a willingness to go there. Sympathy is something we can feel from afar; empathy is something we can offer up close.

But seriously, watch the video.

I’ve been thinking about this video a lot over the last week and a half, in light of another video that I’ve seen several friends share.

I’m not linking or embedding it here, but you’ve probably seen it. From multiple angles, even. It’s the video of an Eagles fan trying to hype up a crowd on a subway car in Philadelphia, and subsequently running head-on into a pole. The second video, shot from the subway platform, shows that on his way down, the man also hits his head on the side of the moving train.

People were sharing this video because it made them laugh. And when I posted on Facebook that I felt like the only person who didn’t find it funny, friends—people I love and respect and care about deeply—tried to explain to me why it was okay to laugh. Pratfalls are funny, they argued. The guy’s okay, they assured me, he thinks it’s funny too. They send me links to his statement to one of our local news affiliates in which he assured everyone who saw the video of his continued health.

Here’s the thing, though: that video started circulating on Sunday evening. The interview with the man in the video came out Monday evening. So for almost a full day, people were joyfully sharing a video of a man who could actually have suffered grievous harm from his collision. And I find this concerning.

Back in the days before streaming video and the DVR, there was appointment television. My family had a few shows and live events we tried to see as they aired. Star Trek: The Next Generation was one of the ones I remember most fondly. My dad tried never to miss the annual Indianapolis 500 race. And if we were home on Sunday evenings, we almost always watched America’s Funniest Home Videos. I loved the mischievous dogs, the babies whose facial expressions were just a little too on point, the dancing grannies, the people who lost their balance and tripped in a way that was clearly only painful to their egos.

AFV clips that don’t make me deeply uncomfortable.

What I did not love—what made me genuinely uncomfortable—were the hundreds of crotch-punches, big falls on the dance floor, faceplants on a bike or skateboard, and the like. I did not, even as a child, really get the idea of laughing at other people’s pain, especially when we really didn’t know, based on the footage, whether that person was hurt. It made me squirm. And even when Bob Saget would talk to the family who submitted the video, and get assurances that everyone was fine, I still didn’t love laughing at what I’d seen.

I have been accused of being too much of an empath. I cry when I see other people cry. I’ve gotten physically ill listening to people describe particularly painful injuries or medical procedures. A few weeks ago, while catching up on the excellent Every Little Thing podcast, I sobbed as host Flora Lichtman played audio clips of people witnessing the summer 2017 solar eclipse because I was so in awe of their awe. I am, I’m certain, an embarrassment at weddings and funerals, and I cried myself to sleep twenty minutes in to the movie Up. (I was extremely confused to wake up to a talking dog.) I gave up on my earlier aspirations to be a clinical psychologist when I realized that I’d only ever be able to keep up a professional poker face if all my patients were happy. And any time someone suggests I consider running for office, I know that I’d wind up bawling at a town hall when one of my constituents tells me their tragic tale—and as a woman, that would be all it took to ruin my political career. I will, I’m sure, be the world’s most embarrassing mother.

But here’s the thing. I wouldn’t change this about myself. Having been on the receiving end of more than one empath’s attention, I’ve learned there is something really beautiful in having someone who is willing to meet you where you are, to say to you: “I may not know exactly what you’re going through, but I care deeply about how you feel, and I am here if you need someone to feel it with.” And there’s also something really beautiful in being able to offer that to someone else.

Even though the Eagles fan in in that viral video is okay, I worry, deeply, about what our willingness to laugh at the video before we knew he was okay says about our dwindling ability as a society to express true empathy. Especially right now, when empathy is one of the only things that might save our country.

Researchers have suggested for years that those of us on the left tend to be more inclined toward empathy than folks on the right. There are plenty of explanations for this (and a very real possibility of confirmation bias in some studies), but it tracks anecdotally with my own experience.

Think about the conversations we’ve been having over and over again in the year or so since the current administration took power. Think about the policies that are being enacted. In a lot of ways, the current political zeitgeist is fueled by empathy—or a lack thereof. It might sound outrageous to many of us that the administration wants to send Dreamers back to countries they’ve never really known. It might sound outrageous to many of us that the GOP would gleefully give the most wealthy people in America a tax cut while making it ever harder for low-income families to get affordable healthcare. That’s not pure outrage we’re feeling, though. It’s also empathy. We know the pain these policies will cause and even if we haven’t felt that exact pain, we’re willing to do whatever it takes to support the people who are going through it right now.

But if we start to normalize the suffering of people in one arena, I worry that we’re going to start feeling less empathy in others. I’m not saying that a little schadenfreude isn’t okay from time to time, but maybe, just maybe, circulating a video of a person who might have suffered real, grievous harm is starting to inure us to the pain people around us suffer every day.

In Mike Judd’s 2006 film, Idiocracy, we’re introduced to future-America’s favorite television show. It’s called “Ow, My Balls,” and if you think you already know what it’s about, I can assure you, you’re right. Idiocracy presents us with a hypothetical future in which, by the twenty-sixth century, humanity has so de-evolved that it is incapable of empathy, and seeks entertainment solely in the pain of others. Specifically, others being hit in the testicles.

Oh hey, guess what. The real SOTU is actually on while I’m writing this. I’d wager it isn’t any better than this.

Since the 2016 election, and even in the months leading up to it, I’ve heard a lot of people—left-leaning people who are theoretically capable of empathy—cite Idiocracy as the direction they fear our country is headed in. But I think that what most of them are most worried about is the stupid-people-voting-for-reality-TV-stars-as-President plotline, and not the people-have-lost-their-ability-to-empathize-and-think-any-sign-of-empathy-is-weak undercurrent of the society presented in the film.

I think they go hand-in-hand. The world of Idiocracy didn’t just wind up that way because the “idiots” out-reproduced, and then out-voted, the models of intelligence depicted in the opening scenes. It wound up that way because at some point, the people who once cared about their fellow human beings stopped being bothered by the mistreatment of others. They didn’t necessarily commit any abuses themselves, but they didn’t put a stop to any, either. And then they started laughing. And then they stopped caring.

When a society turns away from empathy, it loses its soul.

You might think I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. I might be. But I am deeply concerned that we might not recover from this.

As it is, the administration is appointing judges that may change the face of justice in this country for a generation or more. As it is, the administration is pushing an agenda that will kick lawful refugees out of our country. As it is, the administration plans to crack down on the states that have legalized marijuana. These decisions are borne from the opposite of empathy. They’re borne from a place of “I will do what I want and screw the people who I don’t like.” They’re the policy version of that toast my grandfather taught me as a child: “Here’s to you and here’s to me/But if perchance we disagree/To hell with you, and here’s to me.”

It would be extremely hypocritical of me to say I don’t indulge in schadenfreude sometimes. But there’s a difference between enjoying seeing your annoying colleague getting called out for being annoying during a meeting and laughing because your annoying colleague fell down a flight of stairs and broke his ankle.

So when we laugh at someone’s pain—and again, I’m not talking about schadenfreude, or even karma—what we’re doing is slowly telling ourselves: “It’s okay that he made a joke about Mexicans, because the Mexican guy who overheard it said he’s not upset.” Or: “It’s totally okay to laugh at that sexist joke because there aren’t any women around, so really, who does it hurt?” And it’s easy to move from that to: “I know this hurt them, but it didn’t hurt me, so what’s the big deal?”

The big deal is this: when we stop taking other people’s pain into account, eventually someone, somewhere, will do the same to us. And when we feel that we most need empathy, we won’t get it.

So yeah. It’s great that the guy is okay. But next time you see a video of a person running into a wall or taking a knee to the groin, don’t use the fact that they’re not hurt as an excuse to do long-term harm to all of us.

Congratulations, you made it to the end of this. Now here’s a sleeping dog. Don’t you feel more empathetic already?

Update, 2/1/17: Thank you so much to everyone who has engaged with this piece, everyone who’s shared it, and everyone who has commented or reached out. I’m trying to at least acknowledge comments, if not respond to them, but if you want to engage directly feel free to send a private note.