Birthday Thoughts

My birthday was last week. I look…younger than I am. I had a lot of fun last weekend and early last week, and while I was out seeing my favorite band on my actual birthday, I was talking to a couple of women outside on a set break who are a bit younger than me. When they found out how old I am, they asked me what “wisdom” I had to impart at “my age.” I had to think about that for a minute, because *ahem* I like to think I have a lot of wisdom to share, and not necessarily related to wisdom “at my age.” So I closed my eyes a couple times, tried to feel where my intuition would lead me to an answer, and the answer I came up with was “Empathy.”

Which is kind of ironic, since one of my last posts was titled “Against Empathy,” and I have another one coming along the same lines. In fact, I have quite a lengthy and detailed argument against empathy that I think is logically sound and desperately needed in today’s society.

But there is a time and a place for empathy, and it’s important to know when that is.

My companions asked me what I meant, and what I said was an abbreviated version of this: As you get older and life does things to you, there are two sort of standard impulses that you tend to develop in response to all you experience. One is to harden. To toughen up. To strengthen your shell that faces the world, so that the bad things that have happened to you don’t happen again, so that you don’t get mistreated or lied to or hurt again. Everyone goes through this, and to some degree this is an important and necessary part of growing up and becoming an adult.

But like any other tendency or impulse, it can go too far and become an end unto itself, to become as tough as you can, to become ever harder until nothing hurts you, and nothing gets through. This is kind of the “tragic sense of life” as described in a book that I’m working on. It’s the sense that you can’t trust people, that people lie, that people don’t really care about you, that it’s better to be cold and not expect too much, perhaps to expect nothing, out of other people, out of relationships, out of life. Experiencing disappointment and developing a healthy, moderate, functional skepticism about other people and their motives is a vital and useful part of an adult perspective on the world. But taken too far it becomes toxic, to you and others, and can cause you to develop a lot of bad habits and reflexes such as never giving anyone a chance, or a second chance, or to pushing people away simply to be strong and to not get hurt.

This is what I observe and am experiencing as the “Grumpy Old Man Syndrome.” I find this happening and am very aware of it within myself. As I like to put it, every raindrop of human stupidity wears down the mountain of my patience. I started with a mountain of patience and a seemingly infinite capacity for forgiveness when I was young. Now I find myself often very quick to judge, to criticize, and to engage in conflict with others when 20 years ago I would have given chance after chance, as I said almost to infinity, for a person to change a hostile or aggressive attitude, and would have engaged with them seemingly endlessly in a conciliatory way in order to give them a chance to calm down and see reason or to understand that we don’t have to fight. Now, I’m quick to judge a person or a situation, and react almost immediately to counter aggression and respond in kind. I still give people second and third chances, but I do it a lot less than I used to, and certain levels of aggression get no chances from me at all, or a very brief second chance that I quickly close if they don’t seem willing to take it right away. I do think it is a largely rational response, and it has definitely served me well at times, but there have been other times when I could have probably resolved an argument with a person peacefully if I had been the first to forgive, if I had extended an olive branch, and I find lately that I’m just all out of olive branches.


BUT…as I was saying to my new friends, I am trying very. hard. to counter this impulse with the other instinct that can grow within you as you age: the impulse to empathy towards others. This impulse develops as you age and you realize that a lot of your assumptions about how you’ve got it all figured out and how you’re going to conquer the world start to fade, chipped away by time, washed away by all the things you didn’t do, all the things that didn’t go your way, all the obstacles you didn’t surmount because life, as it turns out, is harder than you thought. When you’re young, it’s just sort of obvious how to live, how to succeed, and how to get what you want. It’s all so clear. If walking the path isn’t easy, at least knowing the path is, and you are going to climb the mountain and get exactly what you want out of life, because you’re strong, you’re smart, you’re together, and you’re not going to do the stupid and weak things that kept so many others who clearly never figured it out from getting what they wanted. Not you. You see the path, and you’re going to walk it. You see the mistakes and pitfalls, and you’re going to avoid them. When you’re young, it’s truly bewildering how so many people who are older than you didn’t see what you see, how they didn’t get what they want or live the life they want, the way you’re going to do.

And then life happens. Your career doesn’t work out the way you thought it was going to. Your relationships fail. You’re not as financially secure as you knew you were going to be by 30, or by 40. You make mistakes that seem easy to avoid when made by someone else. You haven’t traveled a fraction as much as you thought you would. You don’t have anywhere near the passion and excitement in your life that you were sure was your right. You never lived in New York, you never saw Paris. You’re not making six figures, or if you are, you find that you’re still living paycheck to paycheck and wondering where all your money went. You wake up too soon, sit in traffic, hold your breath until 5 o’clock, zoning out five days a week and living for the weekend, just waiting until Friday gets here so you can take a breath and relax a little. On weekends you have a few drinks, maybe see some friends, maybe do nothing, maybe camp out in front of your tv, drink in hand, and rest a bit for two days until you wake up on the next dreadful Monday to grind it out again. You’re just a regular schlub, looking in the mirror and realizing you’re not exceptional, you’re just a normal person living an average life, and you wonder how it happened. If you’re like most people, you also find that life simply just kicks your ass sometimes, that every once in a while you just get slapped around and knocked the fk out by some random event out of nowhere, and you don’t quite take on and conquer every challenge in life like you thought you would.

As years go by and you realize how fallible and human you are, little by little, year by year, you start to develop more empathy for others. You may begin to judge people less. Or you may find that at least that your judgments are tempered by a pause, a breath, a moment to wonder if there is something you’re missing, a reason that a person did or didn’t do something that seems to be the obvious right thing from the outside.

It was with all this in mind that I told my companions that the “wisdom of my age” was to try to be more empathetic towards others, especially towards those who are different than you, those who think and act differently, who are from a different background or class, even who are of a different political persuasion. Try not to assume that you know someone else’s life better than they do, that you would have made better decisions in their shoes, that you would have lived their life better, that you would do all the things right that they did wrong. Because I think you would want someone looking at your life from the outside to extend the same courtesy to you.

When you don’t understand why someone does something, perhaps you might wonder if there isn’t some aspect of their life you’re not aware of, something you’re not considering that affects the decision they made. Think of the mistakes you’ve made, of the opportunities you’ve missed, of the chances you didn’t make the most of. Maybe there’s something someone looking at you from the outside would miss. Or maybe you’re just human and made a mistake, or didn’t have the understanding to know how to do the best thing at the time. Time and the experience of fallibility, especially with mindful introspection and deliberate analysis of your decisions and your state of mind, can lead you to understand your own mistakes and frailties, and in turn make you more forgiving of those in others. I think this creates a deeper understanding of others, as well as a deeper connection to them. Empathy brings us closer, to friends and strangers alike, and I think that this is the most important lesson I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older.


Now you’re going to see a lot from me as time goes on arguing against empathy and emotional reasoning, but there is a crucial distinction you must understand: my argument regarding empathy and emotions is about using the proper tools at the proper time, for their proper use. In brief, empathy is crucial not just for successful interactions with others and successfully navigating society, but for meaningful understanding of and connection with others, both those close to you and those you meet only briefly, or whom you are only loosely connected to. Empathy is indispensable on this interpersonal level. I will probably have to restate this many times in the future, but I am absolutely and unequivocally in favor of empathy practiced deeply and habitually in our personal interactions with others, and even to a large degree when analyzing the lives and actions of people far removed.

But it is a terrible tool for policy analysis and decision-making. I can’t say this clearly enough: an absolutely terrible, god-awful tool for crafting law and policy, for trying to decide how to analyze a social issue or solve a large-scale problem. The reasons for this are many and deep, and a subject for a later post. But keep this in mind as I write about empathy, which I am just recently discovering as a root-level issue underlying a lot of today’s political disagreements and, in my view, incorrect approaches to solving problems. I am a fierce advocate of using empathy where it belongs, and of keeping empathy and feelings out of domains where they don’t belong and have little if not negative utility.

My advice to these young ladies only increased in its poignancy with the tragic suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain just days after my birthday, two people who seemed to have it all, yet for whom the troubles of life sadly proved too much to bear. Moments like these, as terrible as they are, are valuable opportunities to remind ourselves that you never know what someone else is going through, and to practice compassion habitually and by default when we interact with others. For if life can become unbearable for people who have succeeded at the highest levels in careers they are passionate about, how difficult can it get for an average person, or someone coping with existential material concerns, or someone who has suffered a lifetime of difficulty, abuse, and setbacks?

There are a lot of lessons to be learned in life, in many aspects and avenues, but I think the most important one is the simplest: “be kind.”