I’ve been thinking about writing something on this topic ever since I left a relevant internet comment at I site I like. But it was David Brooks column on “The Limits of Empathy” that finally spurred me to do it. It spurred me by being so exactly half of the point, while completely missing the second half. The half Brooks gets essentially right, is this:
Empathy orients you toward moral action, but it doesn’t seem to help much when that action comes at a personal cost. You may feel a pang for the homeless guy on the other side of the street, but the odds are that you are not going to cross the street to give him a dollar.
Precisely. It’s an undeniable truth that people think about doing the right thing far more than they do it. If I did the right thing even half the times that I’ve thought about it but not done so, a non-trivial number of people would hold me up as some kind of personal moral hero. It is so easy to see what the right action would be and so hard to actually carry it out.
But Brooks’s answer to this problem, “sacred codes”, is deeply flawed. I’ve never seen any set of codes that was resilient and multifaceted enough to be much use at all among all the messy problems and circumstances that so often serve as our excuse for inaction.
More so, codes have this very real problem of being unbending. You fail to follow the code a few hundred times and you’re likely to reasonably stop even aspiring to it. Codes like the Ten Commandments have been failing for thousands of years precisely because they’re so deeply codified and unadaptable. If every Jew and Christian in America took seriously the commandment that “thou shall not covet they neighbors goods”, America would be a drastically different place. But instead most of them aren’t even aware that it’s on the list.
This is fundamentally the reason that mindfulness practice, being here now, is so important. As I said in that aforementioned internet comment:
The entire work of mindfulness (meditation), to me, is to close the gap between the things we know intellectually and the things we know viscerally. Knowing the senselessness of anger, the questionable value of fear, the wisdom or compassion, the power of love, our minuscule place in the universe, etc is something most everyone thinks they do. But they constantly act in ways opposite to these things they claim to understand because they’ve not really internalized them and made them a part of their operating procedures.
Empathy is something most people do intellectually. They have the thought: it must have sucked to be a Cherokee. They did everything the white Americans asked of them, many of them became better citizens and Christians than the average white Georgian who was their neighbor. But because they wanted a national identity and were the wrong color, they were pushed hard, behind Andrew Jackson’s saber, off into Oklahoma. We can easily understand this without internalizing it. Knowing these facts, and grasping that it must have been terrible only gets you half the way to responding adequately in such a situation.
You must, if you truly want to act in an empathetic way, internalize the struggle of the Cherokee story. You must, yourself, feel what that must have been like. To have your treaties torn to shreds and your people treated like mere obstacles to other men’s goals. And then you must keep that story with you well enough that you never forget what it feels like to be on that side of a confrontation. So that you can act with the understanding of what it was like to be a Cherokee when you turn your mind to the question of, to take an example, Palestine.
This is not an easy thing. And it’s harder still when you’re actually confronted with an angry Israeli complaining about the explosives that get hurled over the wall and disturb her family’s peace. But no set of rules will make it any easier to do the right thing. Especially when you’re constantly distracted by the thought of dinner, that beautiful girl you saw the other day, how much your finances have suffered for this trip, and your childrens’ questionable life-choices.
What’s needed is for you to sit there with the woman’s anger, the parallels between the Palestinian story and that Cherokee one you feel so well, and your understanding that at base all people want the same things and to frankly and empathetically bring her into full contact with the entire reality of the situation. Only be being completely present with all those realities can you lead others to that place of full comprehension and carry out a wise response.