Understanding Doesn’t Create Empathy

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As a teacher, I keep an eye out for short video clips that I can use to trigger class discussions. A colleague of mine send me this short clip, expecting me to be as thrilled as he was:

It’s (supposed to be) a lovely message from a Bible Fellowship that wants to convey the messages of empathy and a service-focused (not self-focused) life. Basically, it goes like this:

1. Guy’s life sucks. He’s always being inconvenienced by others, and he’s bitter about it the fact that they all think they’re the only person in the world. (Hidden message here, as he is, of course, displaying that very mindset.)

2. Man in black (and charcoal) gives him a magic pair of spectacles (these are not glasses, they are spectacles) that enables him to see what everyone else is “struggling” with. (Addiction, job-loss, no hugs).

3. He is overwhelmed and changes his attitude towards those around him – he is humbled by the realisation that their lives actually suck more than his, and he should try to make a difference.
Fade to black.

What’s right with this message is:
1. It’s not about you and your issues. Put yourself out of the way and look to see how you can help others.
2. Stop viewing the people around you as obstacles and see them as people.

What’s wrong with this message is:
1. The premise of the clip is that understanding creates empathy. If only we would understand what other people are going through, we would feel more compassionate towards them. Unfortunately, this is not the case, as can be attested to by anyone who has poured their heart out to a boss/colleague/labrador to be told “Listen, things are tough all over. Get over it”.

In fact, this understanding can create contempt (“What’s wrong with you? That’s not a big problem.”) and a culture in which you “earn” the empathy of others by the emotive power of your sob story. If everything in your life is okay, but you still feel sad and you don’t know why… tough.

What creates empathy is a will to have empathy. Understanding can direct it, but will not create it where it is lacking.

A truly empathetic person should not need magic glasses to tell them when someone is distressed, and will not need to know what’s wrong in their lives to take a compassionate approach to them.

2. It takes people’s power away. The message is “you can’t expect better from them, they’re going through a tough time”. (Which, of course, translates easily into “they can’t expect better from me, I’m going through a tough time”.)

Now, far be it from me to tell someone experiencing difficulty that what they’re doing is not good enough; but at the same time, I don’t think I should be actively telling them that it IS good enough (unless I know them well-enough to say).

Lowering your expectations of someone is actually robbing them of support that could give them strength to do better.

I’m sorry that you’re grieving over your best friend, lady, I really am. I can’t imagine what it must be like for you. At the same time, you and I both know that that doesn’t make it okay to be inconsiderate in the parking lot. 

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19 Responses to Understanding Doesn’t Create Empathy

  1. max says:

    Chris Rock said it another way:

    “So you gotta look at OJ’s situation. He’s paying $25,000 a month in alimony, got a another man driving around in his car and fucking his wife in a house he’s still paying the mortgage on. Now I’m not saying he should have killed her… but I understand.”

  2. snufkin says:

    Knowledge is the first step to empathy, but if it stops at a superficial level, then it’s pretty meaningless.

    You have to know what’s going on with other people to begin to empathize (empathy being what they are calling “understanding”), but taking the step to empathy is a conscious choice, and a skill that one can get better at with practice. The trick is making the choice as much as possible until it becomes automatic.

    There may be differing levels of innate “talent” when it comes to empathy, but empathy can be cultivated and developed. The idea of a “truly empathetic person” allows a person to abdicate responsibility for their own mental state. “Oh, I don’t care what they’re going through. I’m not very empathetic,” is as bad as saying “Oh, they can’t help acting like a schmuck. They’re going through a bad time.”

  3. HP says:

    Look, I’m sorry your leg just fell off and all, but…c’mon, it’s not like you don’t have another.

  4. Great find. It does get “lovelier” at the end, but it’s a classic example of minimizing negative emotions, as well as being ignorant of their evolutionary value.

    Reminds me of a Jewish video I once deconstructed, which tells you how to stop complaining about life etc., through sarcasm (“Here’s how you can guarantee that you’re miserable!”): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oOFKsvBn7oQ&feature=player_embedded

    (The message gets really confusing by the end of it because of the double message.)

    The social norm, well reflected by the OP video, is to simply “get over” stuff that’s not “that” important in life, to not take things “personally.” I’ve written before about 75 ways people tell you to shut up about your bad day etc. in a “nice” way, and there are certainly more than 75 ways to do it.

    I think it’s a good point that understanding, even if shallow, doesn’t make everything okay. We’re still interacting with other people at the end of the day. Glossing things over is more often than not, emotionally dishonest with oneself, and it fosters eventual if not immediate dishonesty with others… which just hurts relationships.

    2. It takes people’s power away. The message is “you can’t expect better from them, they’re going through a tough time”. (Which, of course, translates easily into “they can’t expect better from me, I’m going through a tough time”.)

    Exactly. And by lowering one’s own standards, or at least trying to be convinced of these excuses, their relationships suffer in a way that could be avoided if emotional self-honesty (a gateway to empathy) was valued.

  5. Red says:

    Was anyone else thinking “If i had those glasses the first thing i would do is look in a mirror”?

  6. Comus says:

    I think the main thing here was that he begun seeing others as stand-alone subjects, not as objects in constant (and deliberate) relation to him. The glasses made him see the world as polyphonic, where there are individuals outside of him. It can go both ways, it might make you more empathethic, to scale down your personal worries and make your life better. It might also throw you in a narcissistic rage, as the carefully construed of you as the epicenter slowly dissolves. Depends on your ego formation which way you tilt. The guys reaction in the clip appears to be acting like a delusional schizophrenic, so it can be seen somewhat of a narcissistic wound, and needs the kid next door to relate to (projective identification anyone?) to find his empathy.

    Of course this can also be an ego defence, making it all about himself again (I become more central in this kids life and add external value) and to reconstruct the narcissistic world view after the sordid realization of other peoples consciousness’.

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  17. Anyone else bothered by the “Magical Negro” trope?

    • Also should clarify I think it’s an homage to two similar movie characters: Samuel L. Jackson’s “Jules” in Pulp Fiction, especially when he becomes “enlightened” at the end in the diner; and Laurence Fishburne’s “Morpheus” in The Matrix when he extends the pills of reality/denial.

      As for empathy, it’s much easier to apply when suffering is present. The true test comes when one purposefully seeks to understand – and not to control – insufferable people. That’s the grace of empathy, choosing to humanize an annoying Other.

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