I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy lately.
And, I’ve noticed that some people are significantly better at being empathic than others. I’ve also noticed that my own capacity for empathy has changed really dramatically over time, and I think I can try to draw a few conclusions.
First, I’d like to argue that, in general, empathy is good and creates positive effects. It causes us to be more understanding of others, to seek compromises and win-win solutions, to listen more and better, to be less reactionary and more conscientious with our choices, to live more sustainably, to give more time and money to service and charity, and to support a greater sense of community and togetherness.
In other words, this
And yet, empathy is really, really hard. To help me understand it better, I invented a system in my head that I call Empathy Points. They can also be imagined like hearts from the Legend of Zelda.
This is almost exactly what my life is like
When you’re a toddler, you have zero empathy points. You literally cannot understand that other people have feelings and that they might be affected by the things you do (I see this whenever my 3-year old niece trucks my 1-year old niece like she’s a Madden character). But, over time your capacity for empathy begins to increase (partially through good parenting and partially through the natural development of your brain). Your empathy meter goes from zero points to 10 points.
This is a common scene when Evie and Ida hangout
Then, you start to read fiction, and you find yourself sharing a brain with another *person*, and you discover that putting in this type of work actually increases your resting Empathy Point total. Eventually, you’ve achieved enough empathy to internalize phrases like “violence isn’t the answer” and “be a good listener”. Finally, you mature to your peak empathy points capacity, and without work that’s where you’ll stay for the rest of your life.
Today, it is understood that reading improves empathy and meditation increase compassion. In short, simply trying to improve your brain yields positive effects. But one thing that I think people lack is an understanding of why developing your empathy point meter is important. Most of us feel like we are plenty empathetic in our daily lives because we’re all nice, lovely people who never do anything mean.
We are all perfect humans who never do anything wrong
But, our empathy meter doesn’t stay full all the time. I’ve noticed that when I’m suffering my capacity for empathy plummets. Imagine that you’ve just walked in the door with some groceries, and your roommate/spouse/child says “Hey, can you help me with this?” and you are putting away your groceries and you’re a little annoyed but you say, “give me just a second, I’ll be right there,” and then a few moments later you stub your toe on a tableleg and a split moment after you hear, “Hey, are you gonna come help me with this?” to which you respond “JUST A FUCKING MINUTE!” Somehow, between the stress and the groceries and the toe, the empathy meter dried up. You’re out of empathy points. Game over.
haha, I am mature
In fact, I find that there is a direct relationship between suffering and empathy, and that the reason why it’s important to increase our total empathy points is so that we can handle difficult situations with more kindness and grace. This manifests itself in two ways – the first is simply having a greater total amount of empathy points to lose before you lose the game (e.g. the Dalai Lama might have a million empathy points, and he doesn’t become a dick when he stubs his toe, whereas I might have a hundred empathy points and just be happy that I’m not too hangry). The second is that a well trained mind can diminish the loss of empathy points when confronted with suffering. For example, when I was young, I was heartbroken, and it caused me to lose empathy for basically everyone around me – I didn’t listen to the girl, or to my friends, I became selfish. But now when I feel down, even though I feel my empathy points slipping away nonetheless, they leave more slowly, I have more to begin with, and I’m faster to replenish them.
Which brings me to the point that I’ll end on. Several times over the past year, people asked me what to do when they were feeling sad (a distinct form of suffering). I recommended that they read, exercise, and watch the occasional movie, and not to spend time dating or trying to meet new people. While exercise is pretty great for fixing your body’s chemical balance, reading and watching movies actually helps build empathy, restoring the sensation of love and centeredness that you really need if you want to be happy (and especially if you want to be happy with someone else).
Maybe the greatest ability is just to be aware of your own empathy meter. Are you doing work to improve it? When you are suffering, how quickly does it disappear? How quickly can you replenish it? These are valuable things to meditate on and incorporate. If you know any good tricks to help, I’d love to know them myself.
Thanks for reading –