Ode to empathy

February 20, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

The discussion around empathy seems to be growing exponentially. From the huge splash Brené Brown is making with her work on shame, vulnerability and empathy to Jeremy Rifkin’s vision of our moving towards an Empathic Civilization, empathy is becoming a 21st century buzzword. And rightfully so.

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With the emergence of a global civilization, we need to move beyond the “us and them” mentality that lends itself to so much conflict, violence, and self-destruction. An absolutely essential ingredient for this is empathy. Empathy is the act of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, as the vernacular goes. It is when I try to see and feel things from your perspective or vice versa. When put this way, it seems so obvious and simple. We’ve been taught to do this since we were children, right? How many times did our parents or caregivers tell us “Treat others the way you would want them to treat you”? But when we take a deeper look, it is neither obvious nor simple. In fact, the wave of increased awareness and focus on empathy that we are experiencing is nothing short of a cultural revolution. We are literally re-writing the human narrative.

Changing the Narrative of Human Nature

To show just how important this is, let’s take a look at human nature. The substance of human nature has been a central theme of philosophical and political debates since ancient times. In the 1600s, Enlightenment philosophers and scientists started formulating more “objectivist” views of human nature. These ideas have heavily influenced the world in which we currently live. Four hundred years later, our economic and political systems are still based on the idea that rational people act in their own self-interest rather than the interest of others or of the greater good. That is the foundation of the principle of the “invisible hand” in capitalism. It also implies that if you are generous, you’re a bit of a nutcase.

However, recent research is turning this all-important premise on its head. We are quickly expanding the notion of human nature, based on all kinds of new studies and experiences. It’s not that human nature isn’t selfish, greedy and competitive. It’s just that human nature is also nurturing, generous, and cooperative (all of which require empathy). Otherwise, we would not have made it this far as a species. And the narrow view of human nature as being only selfish, greedy and competitive has contributed enormously to our current self-destructive tendencies, including an economic system that requires growing levels of socio-economic inequality, the devastation of ecosystems, the incredible amount of resources that we put into weapons and warfare, etc. The stories we tell ourselves about the world and ourselves help create our realities.

For instance, if I believe that the world is a place of abundance and opportunities that help me constantly learn and become more empowered, I will live a very different life than if I believed that the world is a scary, dangerous place and I’m helpless to change it. Following this example, you can see how different a society founded on a more holistic notion of human nature would be compared to one based on the idea that we are only motivated by selfish, greedy, competitive intentions. We should not be too surprised at the mess we’re in right now, given that we expect each other and ourselves to consistently act in selfish ways.

Fortunately, we are deepening our understanding of the role of empathy in our evolution, development and biology and this is now expanding our view of human nature. We are actually hard-wired for empathy! This has vast implications for our economic, political and social structures. Even the Harvard Business Review is writing about empathy.

All of this attention on empathy is influencing the way we think about ourselves, as individuals and as a species. It’s also transforming the way we think about our political and economic systems and how they can address the whole of human nature (not just parts of it) and our real needs. It is also changing the way we see ourselves as change-makers. Amidst all of the recent talk in politically progressive circles about the powerful elites being psychopaths, George Lakoff’s ideas about “Frameworks, Empathy and Sustainability” and Philip Zimbardo’s work on “The Psychology of Evil” do a wonderful job of showing us how important it is to empathize with those we find it hardest to understand rather than demonize them.

Here are just a few more extremely interesting ideas that are changing the way we think about our species:

Also, more and more organizations centered around empathy, compassion, altruism and generosity are popping up all the time. Here are just a few: Greater Good, Roots of Empathy, Center for Building a Culture of Empathy, Random Acts of Kindness, Charter for Compassion, The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (not to mention all of the talk and action around sharing and gift economies, like the Post Growth Institute’s Free Money Day.)

* Image credit: If you are the creator of this awesome image, please let me know so I can properly credit you.

Tags: empathy, human nature, outrospection, Sacred Economics