Empathy in a Disconnected World

Call it meaningful connection or call it love. We need it.

Courtesy of  Sirinarth Mekvorawuth / EyeEm / Getty Images 

You weren’t there when you were conceived. You weren’t there at your birth. In the early years we are empty vessels, receiving without the capacity to discriminate. Every download dropped on us by adults and peers in our young lives entered our psyches without our consent and control. And if our minds weren’t mature enough to realize what was happening, at what age did we first challenge the ideas we were told about ourselves and the world?

The stories we inherit before we are able to think for ourselves are etched into our brain like a river, trained to follow its path—not just the content but also the way they are told. The more we repeat them, the more automatic they become, locked in as though they were Truth. Without practiced reflection and self-awareness, we are likely to try to force new ideas into the inherited narratives rather than imagine new possibilities. We’re defending the old stories, preventing growth and diminishing our capacity for wonder.

Through our stories we communicate our feelings and ideas. Without sharing our experience, without being truly known by another, we can barely survive, much less thrive. Call it meaningful connection or call it love. We need it.

Our stories—true or false—are powerfully embedded in our psyches. As fMRI imaging (functional magnetic resonance imaging) demonstrates, our brains are hardwired to share and receive stories. Whether listening to or telling a story, the brain lights up in the same place—the neurological functions are identical.

In The Narrative Method (TNM), we use the concept of the “Cult of Culture” to capture the way familial and cultural influences infiltrate our thoughts and feelings. The Cult of Culture is one of TNM’s 12 core concepts interwoven into a compelling and transformative experience of inspiring videos, storytelling, writing exercises and evocative discussions about big ideas.

In hundreds of salons, workshops and research conducted with people from all walks of life, we have practiced deep connection through identifying and then deconstructing the negative messages from our families, schools, peers, community, government and places of worship. When a stranger sitting across the circle tells a story that could have been your own, when we share emotional burdens, we begin to realize that if all of us struggle with self-doubt, then it may reflect more on the culture than the individual.

We all got the message. We’re not good enough. Not smart enough, cool enough, rich enough, thin enough, talented or pretty enough, white enough. Old or young, successful or homeless, we all digest this private shame and rarely show it to others. But that’s the key—saying it aloud or in writing helps us see it for what it is. The process of uncovering and deconstructing the cultural pathology that we had thought was our own is liberating and leads to new possibilities. Taking back our stories and developing new perspectives is what changes us and in turn, our relationships. We may never fully escape the damaging memes, messages and cultural narratives imposed upon us, but with self-awareness and practice we can fight their bullying.

TNM is a group experience that increases awareness, wonder and empathy. It helps us connect deeply and develop the skills to create more meaningful relationships. Friends, colleagues and strangers have laughed, cried and challenged each other to discover their true voice beneath the lies. We work with diverse underserved populations, dealing with homelessness, addiction, incarcerations, PTSD, domestic violence and isolation. Though their personal stories may be profoundly different from our own, when we put ourselves aside to deeply listen, we recognize that regardless of the settings and circumstances, feelings are universal—we all have the same deck.

With mutual respect and trust we come to appreciate that the circumstances into which we were born and raised caused us to think and behave in particular ways. Those ways may need to be changed and we may need to make amends. But when it comes to obsessively blaming ourselves, we owe it to the Truth to take a step back and consider forgiving ourselves as we would forgive others.

A.W.E. (awareness * wonder * empathy) is at the foundation of the TNM toolbox, offering exercises that turn merely hearing into the lost art of listening. We use our empathy to absorb each others’ stories and see the world through each other’s eyes. And the gift of giving such holy attention to others is that in setting aside your ego, when you are truly there for someone else, you are liberated from your own obsessions. Seeing and being seen, hearing and feeling heard, is the recognition we need. It gives us the strength to withstand another day.

Our current political landscape is replete with “tribalism”—the fierce adherence to one party’s story at the expense of the others’. And in our information-saturated world the problem is compounded by the erosion of our ability to distinguish the true stories from the false. Telling authentic stories about ourselves and our world and listening with real empathy, is at the core of what it means to be human. And there’s never been a time when we have needed it more. 

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