Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Thought of the Day: As things get 'better,' empathy gets worse
I've been trying to nail down how, exactly, our individualistic, fast-paced, "progress"-minded culture empties us out as people. Why is it that, as I heard Eugene Peterson say last month, "As we get faster and faster, we become less and less"? One suggestion came to me yesterday in Anna Deavere Smith's interview with Studs Terkel in her book Talk To Me. Terkel says: "[There's] less and less awareness of pain in the other." That was a new one to add to my list of casualties of a commercial culture: lack of contemplation, more interest in "using" people than knowing people, abandonment of communal and traditional ties.

Less awareness of pain in the other. Empathy. Being empathetic to the suffering in other people. That was one of the most emphasized qualities of Jesus Christ in the gospels. Christ had three years in which to do his life's work, and yet he never rushed an encounter with anyone, ever. This kind of empathy gets lost in the rush of our culture in which we are always chasing something--"success," "achievement," wealth, things. We chase just about everything except meaningful relationships.

The Terkel interview came after Smith's reflections on how the rhythm of character's speech on stage can reflect how they are making themselves vulnerable--or even how a character is losing his mind, as in the case of King Lear, who abandons iambic rhythms for trochaic ones in his outburst "Never never never...". Smith observed that politicians today are generally incapable of (prohibited from?) making themselves vulnerable, which only weakens our trust in government.

Not, I would note, that we have a lack of expression about suffering in our culture. My only question for Terkel is how fine a line there is between not concealing our suffering and whining about it. For example, few people who asked me in the last year how my marriage was going gained much of an understanding of just how much marital discord has been tearing at my insides. My standard line, which is honest but incomplete, has been: "Well, marriage has its challenging and rewarding moments." This is partly, frankly, my adherence to the idiotic Protestant ethic that No One Likes A Whiner And Suffering Builds Character So Don't Dwell On It. (You all but had to sign this statement on paper where I grew up.) Despondence is--after a certain point--self-centered. Besides, when someone asks how you're doing, it's almost always just making small-talk; we live with shameful oblivion to the profundity of the question, "How Are You?"

But Terkel's point is crucial. Think of all the seemingly trivial situations that compose our daily lives in which empathy between two people is all but impossible--a transaction with a bank teller, a fast-food order at the drive-thru, passing a co-worker in the hallway, talking with a client on the phone, even asking your kid "How was school?" at dinner and having them mumble "Fine" between bites. In all of these most ordinary and common interactions, no awareness--perhaps no possibility of awareness--of another's suffering, worries, regrets, or grief can flourish--even though it is this awareness that makes us human, that distinguishes us from machines. The more these fly-by encounters typify interpersonal communication in our lives--and the more that we idealize the disembodied "personalized" greetings on an ATM, AOL, or on Amazon.com ("Hello, Nathan L.K. Explore what's New For You today!") the more empathy suffers.

-Previous Thought: business jargon and the fine arts
-Earlier Thought: is effective communication a virtue?
-Earlier in this blog: Steve McKee on "personal marketing"

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