I don’t generally like watching war movies. I find the ‘good’ ones so moving, so deeply disturbing, that I find myself for weeks reflecting on the fear, trauma and pain of all involved. So it was with a bit of reluctance I decided to see Dunkirk last year. Given my lifestyle (I own a business with offices in London and Australia) most movies are viewed on a small screen somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, but, Dunkirk, I had been told, was a masterpiece that deserved a big screen, and so the hubs and I went to the IMAX to view it in all its 1570 glory.
Months later and I’m still processing the experience. The relentless, visceral violence, interspersed with moments of bittersweet poignance. The feeling of taking a gasping breath and then dipping below water. Holding it until your lungs ache and burn, and then rising again for another breath, to be met simultaneously with life sparing air and life taking chaos.
The last few months of 2017 have seemed to take a similar toll on my psyche. Between Googlebro, #MeToo, Charlottesville, Barcelona, Vegas, London, Manchester, Nigeria, Myanmar, Syria, Harvey, Maria, Irma – too many to mention – I have toggled between anger, hope, sadness, hopelessness and exhaustion in almost all equal measure. I guess it’s fair to say I’m a bit up in my feelz at year end. When I struggle to swallow difficult news, I attempt to break it down into smaller pieces. To try and almost pixelate the experience into the most metabolisable nuggets so I can see them in a less painful way than their overwhelming totality. And in doing so I become something of a prospector, looking for the flakes of glimmering gold that I keep hoping exist in a weighty pile of painful crap. I almost always do strike gold. It just takes bit longer sometimes. Reflecting on 2017, I think I have found the redline that links all these experiences, the vein of gold within the cold bedrock, and that vein is empathy.
Here’s the sort of shitty thing about empathy. Sometimes, the more you feel it, the more you wish you didn’t. The difference between sympathy and empathy is that with sympathy you feel pity and compassion, but it is as if you were experiencing it from outside yourself. It is someone else’s problem. Empathy is something you internalise. Brené Brown does an excellent job of explaining the difference, saying that empathy means crawling down into a hole with someone, rather than just shouting advice from the rim at the top.
The problem when you crawl in that hole with people that it makes you feel vulnerable. Frightened. Overwhelmed. And so there are moments when it seems it would be easier to step away. The other reason empathy is hard is because it is a great equaliser. If you feel genuine empathy for a person, like Googlebro or Harvey Weinstein or even (swallow) Donald Trump, then we are forced to imagine how that person could become so bereft of their own empathy, and the reality can shock us. Because, even if they are a clinical sociopath, they likely weren’t born that way. Something made them become that kind of human.
We are all actually born hardwired for empathy. Neuroscientists have recently discovered that humans are wired to experience empathy through multiple systems of mirror neurons in our brains. These mirror neurons reflect back actions that we observe in others causing us to mimic that action in our own brains. When we observe someone in pain or when we are with someone happy, we experience that to a certain extent. These mirror neurons are the primary physiological basis of empathy. And so empathy doesn’t have to be learned so much as a muscle to be strengthened. And two major mechanisms that get in our way of feeling empathy, of being connected via these miraculous mirror neurons, is distraction: our device culture and outgrouping.
Looking at our own makeup, we only have so much energy and being too empathetic can become exhausting. Humanity has empathy fatigue. Roman Krznaric, in his book Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution notes that empathy levels have dropped precipitously (almost 50%) over the last 40 years. Sadly, aligning almost directly with the end of the civil rights movement. Krznaric posits that if we are to be revolutionaries, we must cultivate empathy in order to build relationships that heal the social divides causing much of the strife we’re experiencing. Simply put, if we’re to withstand times like these, and keep being the light we wish to see in the world, we must keep our empathy muscle on point. I do it in a few different ways.
This can be different things to different people. For me it means a day on our sailboat, a pummelling massage in Chinatown, a rom-com on Netflix, or a lazy Sunday in bed. It also has come to mean daily meditation and yoga practice, if even just 5 minutes and a few asanas. It’s a muscle. Use it or lose it. I find the daily practice acts as what Abraham Maslow called ‘good psycho hygiene.’ We clean our teeth every day. We need to clean our minds too.
I will honestly say that this is the toughest for me. I love my phone and social networks, but it does not love me back. We know that phone use increases our anxiety and depression, and if we are using them in a highly empathetic state, it can be particularly destructive. Furthermore, Our lack of presence with people in the moment damages relationships and stunts our ability to feel empathy. I use a screen time blocker called In Moment which works but is not cheap at $9.99 a month. Yes, I should have the self-control to do it myself. I don’t yet. Again, it’s a muscle. This one’s pretty flabby.
Neuroscientist David Eagleman did a study where he showed people pictures of a hand being stabbed by a needle, and tracked their responses using brain scans. Naturally when people saw the images, their pain centres lit up in empathy. When we see people hurting, we hurt too. But here is the tricky part. Then he labelled the hands with labels like Christian, Muslim, Atheist, and showed the images again. This time, participant’s pain centres only lit up when they saw their in-group being stabbed. Empathy depends on breaking down the us-and-them barriers and can only exist when we see ourselves as one humanity with one shared human experience.
I bang on a lot about the power of curiosity, and this is yet another tick in the ‘pro’ column for a healthy dose of Vitamin ‘C’. Being curious about other people and their lives is one of the best ways to dissolve out-grouping. Talk to strangers (your taxi driver is a great place to start.) I know for some, this is outside of their comfort zone, but connecting with people different from us is a grounding mechanism for our egos and helps us react in a more empathetic way to each other. I find travel does this as well. Seeing that everywhere we go, from Minnesota to Minsk, couples swoon and babies cry and old people begin to resemble their pets, is a wonderful way to be reminded that we’re all in this together.
Awe is the most meaningful, impactful, ameliorative emotion we can experience, and it doesn’t have to manifest itself in just the big Aha moments. By finding quotidian ways to experience awe (there’s a sunrise and sunset every day), we can open that part of ourselves that allows us to be more connected to each other. I find that, based on advice from the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu in their Book of Joy, journaling about my experiences with a sense of gratitude helps positively calcify my intention to find awe in big and small ways. Practice makes (closer to) perfect.
I remember when I decided to leave death penalty work. I had gone into the job with such hope and an open heart. I was most certainly desperately naive as well. But what I believe made me a good investigator was the empathy I felt for every person I spoke to. I could imagine the choices they had made that got them to that moment in time when I had occasion to meet them, and I never bought into the notion of any human as evil. Broken or ill, yes, but not evil. I saw each person as who they could have become. The challenge however, is when you are that open, you allow a whole lot of dross to funnel through you. And in doing so, my defence was to become hardened. The very thing that brought me to the work was why I had to leave it. I had hardened my heart to protect it, and I couldn’t connect anymore. The light I wanted to be in the world slowly suffocated.
I’ve since relit that Promethean gift of empathy and tend to it lovingly, so it won’t go dark again. My wish for you, and for all of us, is that we can go out into 2018 and be the empathetic light we wish to see in the world, never forgetting we must keep just a small lick of flame protected for ourselves to keep our own home fires burning.