Humanizing Empathy

While I would love to live in a post-empathic world, where people were just eager to learn about and share with one another, and explore human communication to its utmost ends, I find that instead I live in a world where some people are still not seen as entitled to or deserving of the same human kindness, opportunity, and support as others. Even decades after the Civil Rights movement, we still live in a world where the ‘other’ as an outsider is feared, despised, and dehumanized.

It really struck me while listening to Democracy Now a few days ago. An activist in Puerto Rico was speaking out about the lack of support that Puerto Rico has received in the wake of Hurricane Maria. The U.S. is only providing a third of the support to Puerto Rico that it gave to Texas and Florida. The Jones Act requires that vessels traveling between U.S. ports be U.S. ships, and therefore the U.S. restricts the availability of other foreign governments to reach Puerto Rico to provide disaster relief supplies. Trump did lift the ban on the Jones Act, but this was only effective for 10 days. The bottom line is this: Even though it is a US territory, Puerto Rico is not being given the same quality of care and support as these other disaster efforts, as though U.S. government officials are unable to see Puerto Rico citizens as worthy of the same human rights as citizens of Texas and Florida.

We need to see one another as human, and as distinct subjective persons sharing similar struggles and similar dreams. We are predisposed to care or listen more intently to the stories of people who we perceive as kin, or more like ourselves, but when it comes to the phenomenology, the lived beings and inner worlds of people who we perceive as different from ourselves, we struggle. We lose patience. We do not listen in the same way, with the same quality of attention. We get lost in our own stubborn biases.

Even when we do take the time to listen and care, often doing so actually taxes our own emotional resources. In acknowledging what another person feels and attempting to understand, our own emotions rise to a point where we lose connection to the other and motivation to enact change. We think that empathizing is feeling what another person is feeling, but instead we often confuse our own feeling-state for the other’s. That’s not empathy.

In an On Being Studios interview between host Krista Tippett and Joan Hallifax, Joan explains that expert meditation practitioners have a higher sensitivity to empathy than the average person, but also a faster recovery time from the high emotional reaction in empathy. Thus, she claims, they have a greater ability to avoid empathic distress (also called ‘compassion fatigue’) and move towards a relaxed, reflective, and attentive care and compassion that is other-directed rather than self-focused.

We live in a world now where we have more access to emotionally-stimulating data than ever before, and we scroll through social media and news feeds with highly evocative emotional content every single day. Our capacity to empathize is becoming saturated, and we are left feeling belittled and distressed, wondering what it is that we could possibly do to make a difference.

My hypothesis is that the ability to regulate one’s own emotions and differentiate between one’s own emotions in response to another from a target may be really crucial in preventing empathic distress that taxes resources in other-directed empathy and compassion.
I wish to create a tool to help foster curiosity about the emotional states and the personal histories of one another.

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