What my nephew taught me about empathy

The Contrast
Taking Friday off means I get to run over to Whole Foods at 10 am and get a fresh pressed beet, spinach and ginger juice. It’s my second day off in 5 months. I’ve earned this $7 juice, and these $75 Under Armour pants and my $125 ultra light running shoes.

I look around and observe two distinct crowds at this hour:

  1. Uniformly dressed Chicagoans, waiting in line for their mid morning coffee, homogeneous in their power suits, tailored, hard edges, neutral colors, invisible under their body armor
  2. And moms – in yoga pants, their shirts being tugged by exhuberant children, exposing breast-feeding bras – disheveled and vulnerable to the core

I decide to run alongside the river on the way home – it’s longer but so much more scenic, and I have all the time in the world (for a day). Glass buildings line the river – I imagine they’re full of people typing away at their desks, in discussion around meeting tables or talking to faceless phones in conference calls, while retired people sit on benches with their dogs, watching the boats go by.

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I get home to Leo, my 5 month old nephew, who’s just woken up from his morning nap. He’s happiest right after he wakes up. He gives me the most radiant smile as I enter his room, and its warmth starts in my heart and spreads all over. I smile back. In the 6 weeks I’ve spent with Leo since he arrived on this planet, I’ve observed how permeable he is to all emotions around him. When his mom and dad get overwhelmed, he is troubled and scared. When we are excited, he squeals with joy. Later on Friday, I understand partly why, as I read Michio Kaku’s About The Future of the Mind. Our brains contain neurons that mirror other people’s emotions as they happen around us – i.e. we are programmed to be empathetic. This also explains why one child crying in proximity to others results in other children also crying. So if we assume that it’s our nature to feel what others feel, as if they were our own feelings (note, this does not require cereberally connecting with someone’s experience but rather experiencing it as our own emotionally), and we know that we were born with this super power (and see it in children around us), then why is the adult-world around us so lacking in empathy? Why must we put on shields of invisibility (some call it “Professionalism”) as we head out to work every day, and return battle-worn, hyper caffeinated, disconnected and disengaged from the cities and people we co-habit with? And what role are we playing in creating this world?

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The Hypothesis
It’s convenient to externalize this “problem” to a specific company (e.g. Amazon being the latest) or an industry (tech being the latest). Having worked at Amazon, and Microsoft, and a few other places, I’ve found that some places are more symptomatic of lack of empathy, but none represent empathy, not even CLOSE. I commend companies for looking at addressing symptoms like maternity/paternity and benefits to accommodate employees (though I’m not sure about the kindergarten looking tech offices with ping pong tables and free meals – those just make me suspicious. Trying too hard!). However, I believe the root cause lies within all of us.

  1. The issue isn’t that we don’t know how to be empathetic. We do. We can’t help but be empathetic. That’s how we survived as social animals and that’s still how we make sense of the world and our well-being in it.
  2. The issue is that other core behaviors have been amplified to the extent that there’s no space, time or ability to connect with our feelings or those of others.
  3. These behaviors stem from the hyper-speed/hyper-performance context we’ve created.

The Industrial age, along with incredibly high quality of life (brought to you by Under Armour, Whole Food etc.) gave us pan consumerism, which in turn made work and wages so much more than just survival oriented.

The Digital age, along with incredible global reach to anyone and anything (brought to you by the Internet, blogging on the Internet, posting on Facebook about blogging on the Internet) has addicted us to SPEED. Try fast, fail fast, bias for action, fickle stock markets, fickle consumers, hyper-competitiveness, shorter and shorter product life cycles, razor thin margins, more overloading of employees, increasing fear of becoming irrelevant, weirder and weirder business models (that don’t actually make money), more and more “free” services to gain customers, always on, always connected, always expecting everything else to be always on, always connected, we are all consumers and producers of our own frantic insanity.

With this as our large context, who the fuck has time or space to just FEEL – to be. To connect. To stop and take notice of the other. I’m as guilty of this as anyone else. Working in retail, with a very small team trying to run a very large business, what’s immediate and urgent is today’s sales, today’s margins. I seek out hyper performers, I focus on hyper performing myself. Always acting. Rarely feeling. And then I take a yoga class or two as a contrived addition of “being in the present” to my otherwise action-biased life – pathetic and sad.

The Insights
So here’s what I took from all this news over the last few weeks about empathy:

  1. I will make more time to connect with people at work without an agenda or outcome in mind
  2. I will slow down and actually enjoy the millions of seconds technology saves me with it’s awesomeness instead of spending those saved seconds on technology
  3. I will buy less
  4. I will continue to be inspired by my nephew and hold on to his youthful wonder and innate connection with the world.
  5. I will remind him (when he grows up) that he doesn’t need to become invisible, or make others invisible in order to succeed


2 thoughts on “What my nephew taught me about empathy

  1. Beautifully thought out and beautifully written.

    Empathy. So many thoughts, but mainly that it is an incredible gift and we are never taught how to use/channel/focus it. As a result we become overwhelmed with all the feelings we don’t understand (too many mixed emotional messages) and can’t control. At an early age we learn to tune them out; to shut them down, as they interfere with our ability tot function. I believe a lot of addictions come from trying to numb intense emotions we can’t do anything about – because they aren’t ours and we can’t stop them.

    The challenge with empathy is to know how to be emotionally open and aware without being overwhelmed by the emotions of everyone in the vicinity – there is a lot of intense emotions out there. Anyway, a big “Yes!” that there is a need to awaken our empathic nature. To do that, I believe we need to learn how to be emotionally open and available safely, or we will simply shut down again having confirmed the belief that it’s not safe to feel the world. We have to both feel safe and be safe to truly stay open, curious, and connect with our full empathic capacity. Leo feels safe.

    I find your hypothesis and insights (affirmations) helpfully perceptive and motivating. Thank you!

    There is one thing I would like to add. Your thought “To stop and take notice of the other” is essential but I think it is only half of the challenge. The other half is to stop and take notice of the self. If we don’t take the time to know and accept our self we won’t feel safe letting others get to know us, therefore little or no real connection. The key is not only to know, but to be known. Few of us are secure enough to let ourselves know our self much less be known by others.

    Empathy is about knowing our self and other’s self.

    I think it was T. S. Eliot who once said, “Humankind can stand very little reality.”

    Great blog post!!

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