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.”


Against Empathy

Today I attended a very interesting lecture on the topic of empathy. It may seem strange at first blush: what’s to discuss? What’s to even think about? Empathy is good right? Like being kind, generous, forgiving, and generally a good person who treats others well, empathy seems like something we can and should take for granted as a sort of core tenet of life and human interactions, something that we can just accept as a foundation for how we’re supposed to act in the world, without any sort of examination. In fact, to even examine it might not only seem strange, but a bit grotesque and off-putting when brought up as a topic of inquiry.

But in fact, this seemingly innocuous subject and impulse may actually be at the root of many, if not most, of our most intractable social and political problems, and I am only now starting to appreciate this fact.

The topic was first brought to my attention, as many topics are, by author and intellectual Sam Harris. In this episode of his podcast from 2015, Sam interviews Yale psychologist Paul Bloom about the research that led to his 2016 book Against Empathy. Bloom argues that rather than enhance our moral understanding and decision-making, empathy may actually interfere with it, distort it, and even steer it towards unforeseen if not immoral actions and consequences. I will say more about this podcast in a later essay, but for now, let us return to today’s fascinating lecture by Deborah Nelson.

Professor Nelson is a professor of English and chair of the English department at the University of Chicago, where she studies late 20th-century US culture and politics. The local University of Chicago Alumni Association in Minneapolis brought her in to speak about her latest bookTough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil, which “focuses on six women whose work coheres in a style and philosophical viewpoint that challenges the preeminence of empathy as the ethical posture from which to examine pain.” The lecture was advertised as such:


Empathy has been receiving a lot of attention recently, its importance urged not only in national politics but also in the workplace, schools, between friends, and among strangers.
But what if we are wrong? What if empathy isn’t what we need, but unsentimentality? This talk by Deborah Nelson describes the ethics and aesthetics of unsentimentality as practiced by some of the late 20th century’s most notable women artists and intellectuals: Susan Sontag, Diane Arbus, Hannah Arendt, Joan Didion, Mary McCarthy, and Simone Weil. Drawing upon her recent book, Tough Enough, Nelson will consider what it would mean to have an ethics without empathy even in the face of extreme suffering.

Needless to say, I would find this topic fascinating even if I had not previously discovered it in a podcast. It has a wonderful sense of counter-intuitiveness that seems ripe to make one examine previously unquestioned premises.

Professor Nelson began her lecture with a discussion of the recent popularity of empathy in our news, business, and politics. She showed us a few recent headlines, including an article from the Harvard Business Review entitled Empathy: The Most Valuable Thing They Teach at HBS. A quick search of the HBR turns up a plethora of articles on empathy. Next, she showed a headline from the New York Times addressing president Trump’s first attack on Syria in retaliation for the regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians entitled On Syria Attack, Trump’s Heart Came First. [Searching for this, you find that, perhaps a topic worthy of its own discussion, that the New York Times has changed the title of that article, although you can still find the original title here, and a scathing critique of that article here, which I guess indicates some blowback from left wing political circles. Thank you, Internet.] Finally, she showed a headline discussing what is starting to be understood as “empathy fatigue,” a term and analysis I am unfamiliar with, but which makes intuitive sense when you take a few moments to think about the sorts of issues that have dominated our news in the last few years, including but not limited to the refugee crisis, police shootings and Black Lives Matter, and the MeToo movement. Upon reflection, it is apparent how empathy as an analytical tool has taken off as a means to understand our world, and, for better or worse, to reach policy decisions.

Professor Nelson then discussed the genesis of her book, which was to analyze 20th century historical and intellectual figures in the context of an ethic of unsentimentality and their own public controversies with the subject of empathy. She did not set out to write a book solely about women, but she found that it was almost impossible to find a male public intellectual who had been through such a controversy, yet another topic worthy of its own discussion. She weaves the various writings and analyses of these intellectuals with their own personal stories, perhaps ironically drawing our interest in these figures through our own empathy with them.

One extremely interesting foundation of this discussion is the origin of the concept of empathy as an analytical tool and part of our lexicon. Surprisingly, the origins of the word have nothing at all to do with feeling the perspective of another human being. Contrary to intuition, empathy has not always existed as a concept for how to interact charitably with other human beings. Historically, moral philosophers tended to use the words “sympathy” and “compassion” for how to approach treating others with kindness. The term empathy itself came into existence in the 19th century as a scientific term, intended to express literal mirroring of physical states in the natural sciences. As the 20th century emerged, it evolved into yet another meaning with which most of us are probably not familiar, as an aesthetic term used to analyze the quality of art. I’m not quite sure that I understand the exact nature of this use of the word, but from what I gather it was meant to express not a subject-object sensation where the observer feels the perspective of say another person represented artistically, but rather that the art expressed a reality of the object. My understanding is that the word was used as a measure of the quality and truthful representation of the art. In any case, the modern sense of the word “empathy” did not evolve until well after the second world war, taking hold sometime in the 1960s. This historical understanding alone is somewhat revelatory if not revolutionary for our modern understanding, as it demonstrates that empathy is not a fixed and eternal element of our moral understanding and landscape. In fact, not even a very long-existing one. I expect to chew on that alone for some hours in the coming weeks.

In the meat of her discussion, Professor Nelson examined the historical trajectory of our modern concept of empathy, partly by analyzing that modern concept, and partly through exploring some of the details of the lives and work of the women in her book. The overall theme was that these women, each in their own way, took what was probably an unconventional view about moral analysis, in the sense that this sort of work should be done with an ethic of unsentimentality, rather than empathy, for several reasons.

One reason is that empathy, rather than guiding us to proper moral actions and conclusions, can do just the opposite, because the reality of human hard wiring is that we are designed to be empathetic to people who look like us, who are near us, who we find more physically or personally attractive, etc., so that rather than decrease tribalism, it can, and perhaps most often does, increase it. An example would be that one might feel great empathy for the dead and wounded soldiers of one’s own army or country, but little to none for the injured and suffering of one’s enemy, and in fact one’s empathetic intuitions may lead in the opposite direction to antipathy or contempt.

Another reason is simply the fixed limits of our understanding and ability to process the information required to understand the world in an empathetic way. Professor Nelson spoke for some time about the attempt for the world to process the events of World War II, to even find language and concepts for it, let alone to actually understand what had happened. I was not aware, but even going into the 1960s, there was not a robust published body of analysis of the Holocaust, and in fact it was not until the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961 that such work began on any scale. Hannah Arendt was not even able to find a publisher for her groundbreaking  work Eichmann In Jerusalem for some time because of a perceived lack of interest. Looking back, it seems almost appalling that the world could go more than a decade without seriously examining the Holocaust, but perhaps this expectation that we would have now of an immediate dissection of this issue reflects how hard it is for us to understand the enormity of this catastrophe for those living in that time. How do you process the scale of the deaths of tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands dying in a single day or in one attack, let alone tens of millions dying in the totality of the war? Which brings us back to the limits of empathy, even in its best case, its best use, its best outcomes, and its best intentions. We simply do not have the mental machinery to process empathy on a scale of more than a handful of people, let alone for any truly important and tragic event. Or, as someone once said: “One death is a tragedy. One million deaths is a statistic.”

In light of the problems with and limits of empathy, it’s a compelling point that perhaps our moral philosophy should be guided by unsentimentality rather than empathy. Professor Nelson examined how her subjects strove to understand the world and morality through an understanding of facts that we can know with our senses and analyze abstractly, rather than with emotional connections to the people we wish to help or wish we could have helped. In doing so, these women received their share of criticism, which I suspect would very likely happen to anyone making such an argument today, whatever their gender or identity.

This was an excellent lecture, and I can’t wait to buy the book. One quote that I found interesting at the end of the lecture was from one of Professor Nelson’s subjects saying something along the lines that “Pain shows us the limits of ourselves.” In other words, pain tells us that we are not the world, that reality and other people exist beyond us, and that there are limits to not only our selves, but our impact on the world. I can’t imagine a more unsentimental note to end on, and I encourage you to find a copy of her book and see what it can teach you for your own understanding of morality.