Empathy, Compassion, and Truth

Empathy, Compassion, and Truth

Sunday mornings warrant distinct rituals and routines. Podcasts are a near-perfect medium for dog-walking, offering variety in content, length, and tone. Something will suit any particular outing. Sunday morning podcast choices surely should be distanced - at least a little - from current events. Maybe the afternoon is right for a deep dive into something like the history of the past 70 years on the Korean peninsula. Today, maybe a media-fuelled freakout over Michelle Wolf's comments at the White House Correspondents Dinner, or a spoiler-laden breakdown of what Avengers: Infinity War means for the future of comic book movies.

Read this book!

Read this book!

One of the great books I have read over the past several years is Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice On Love & Life from Dear Sugar, by Cheryl Strayed. When I read it in 2012 I remember feeling like I had removed earplugs from my emotional centre. The writing helped me work through feelings in ways I had not before. The timing could not have been better, coinciding with a tumultuous time of love, loss, and growth. I became a better person by living through those months. 

While this post is not about my process, what was it about the book for me? I was immediately struck by more than just the empathy Strayed was able to bring to some truly hard situations. Her insistence on honesty in getting to a person’s very specific truths, as a necessary condition of accepting oneself and the hard situations, was revelatory. [A companion book of equal value and impact at this same time was Manhood for Amateurs, by Michael Chabon. I cannot urge you more strongly to read them both if you have not, preferably together.]

Manhood for Amateurs cover.jpg

I was delighted to discover last Fall that the advice column had become Dear Sugars. And so it was this quiet Sunday morning I pressed play on one of their recent episodes of “radically empathic advice” and let it take me for an internal walk while the dogs explored Hyde Park, harassing squirrels, geese, and each other.

A Night of Bad Stories covered several specific situations described by letters from listeners seeking advice. The podcast is a great listen in its own right. This theme, bad stories, corresponds to the title of Steve Almond’s new book. Bad stories are a device we use for hiding from our own truths. The advice-seeking letters used in this podcast illustrate why truth is so important to finding empathy, for ourselves or others with whom we are in difficult situations. 

One of those letters was of particular clarity. The Sugars invited author Omar El Akkad to help respond to the advice seeker, who expressed anxiety and discomfort over interactions with a close family member. The letter begins at 19:54 of the podcast. 

Omar’s response was incredibly insightful, and he pressed deep into a very difficult intra-family dynamic to get to a truth we collectively do not acknowledge well or often. He goes beyond the racism of the individual, and asks us to confront our social obligations to each other and our social history. By compartmentalising the individual, and making an isolated, personal decision to tolerate unacceptable opinions or statements, we walk away from bigger truths that keep us from finding empathy and building compassion at a societal level. He references James Baldwin’s commentary about “how much damage racism does to the racist” and that holding onto a fraudulent notion of supremacy creates anger when reality reveals the lie of this notion. The delusion leads to anger, and to live both delusional and angry is a very difficult way to live a life. [By the way, I urge you to read Baldwin’s writing and watch the recent documentary.]

Mr El Akkad ends with a challenge to the person who wrote the letter, noting the person’s effort to reconcile familial love with with the terrible racism of that family member requires one to do what is difficult. He asserts that to sidestep doing what is difficult is not love, but abdication. 

This very short letter and response highlighted a lot about refusing to bring the clear truth into our efforts to find empathy with others. So many interactions that get brought into the open by various media seek to help build empathy among people who are now very visibly divided in society. This podcast highlighted something important about those efforts, which is the failure of those efforts to start with the truth, which is that racism in American is not individual, but cultural and institutional. Journalists tend to refrain from insisting on acknowledging the truth of things when talking about empathy, which of course is a reflection of how so many of us refrain from getting to the truth first. 

As is the case in so many instances these days, I am reminded of another important point so relevant in our current moment. What we know is shaped very radically by where we get our information. If we are told factually incorrect things under the guise of news, we carry that forward into shaping our beliefs and interactions with others. Local television news has long been a pernicious force distorting how we ‘know’ things, and reinforcing the cultural and institutional racism we struggle to confront. The efforts of Sinclair Media to consolidate ownership of local news outlets and propagate an explicit political agenda through the delivery of ‘news’ programming is a radically dangerous state of affairs. Yet our public discourse on this subject has been both blinkered by a lack of truthfulness and hindered by inattentiveness (or worse).

This dynamic goes beyond racism or sexism to issues of economic inclusion, fairness, and well being. While well documented, the incoherence of political support for the current Administration, and the GOP more broadly, among those who are left worse off by their policies is another fraudulent delusion that has led to anger. 

To this point, one must take care to recognise the full range of forces at play. Decades of behavioural research tell us that facts and reason are not the primary basis for what and how we operate. We evolved to respond to the social dynamics in which find ourselves, and we behave in order to coöperate and survive in groups

Over the several weeks we have be made to listen to the political dynamics surrounding the return to television of Roseanne. Many journalists have repeated her remarks about Trump, and either directly or implicitly imply how much influence she might have with a subset of voters. The show was at one time the most popular one on the air, and was praised for how the characters reflected real world attitudes and behaviour. 

Further, the show was seen as having some influence on viewers in shaping their opinions politically. I was surprised and interested to hear a segment on Real Time with Bill Maher, which aired this past Friday night, in which the host identified Roseanne and the show.

In addition to his advocacy, a few points stand out. 

  • First, he contextualises his remarks by disclosing the role Roseanne played in his early career, expressing gratitude for work opportunities and general support. 
  • Second, he reviews how her views and the way her show represented those views has been a source of cultural and political influence in the past. 
  • Third, he directly challenges her for recent statements in support of Trump. While he does outline a reasoned case for his challenge, in doing so he is playing not to a broader audience, but to her potential ability to help shape the opinions and thus voting decisions of viewers, and presumably others, who would respond to a cue from Roseanne in this aspect of their lives.

The way he raises the topic and addresses his case holds to the view that changing minds of Trump voters or supporters who are not being helped by the actions of the Administration and the GOP-led Congress is not about a logical argument.  Instead I think this approach is much more about changing minds by changing the messages coming for someone who is considered to have cultural resonance and influence.

The segment is sharp and can be seen as a canny bit of political craft, whether one agrees with Maher or not, one that upholds the view that empathy and compassion could be built on a foundation of shared truths. Each of us in our lives has a opportunity to take the approach advised by Mr El Akkad, with an understanding that not doing so can be seen as abdication.

Chapter 9

Chapter 9