Cultivating Empathy

Cultivating Empathy

By Tom Robotham


Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant? ~ Henry David Thoreau


Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy. We tend to regard it as a quality that some people have and others don’t. But it seems to me that regardless of how empathic a person’s nature may be, empathy is something that we need to cultivate, continually, like the most cherished of plants in a garden. As any gardener knows, after all, when we fail to pay close attention, weeds sprout up, pests invade, and before we know it our cherished plants have begun to wither.

It is especially important, of course, in intimate relationships—a fact that has struck me time and again since late autumn when I met a woman and began to fall in love. To me she is wonderful beyond words. Indeed, I cannot imagine a better partner. And yet, inevitably, we have had some disagreements. But the truth is, I am as thankful for these moments as I am for the countless hours of blissful harmony.

I am thankful for them because they have led me to understand her more deeply—and in the process, to achieve a deeper understanding of myself as well. I’ve come to realize that in far too many cases in the past, when encountering moments of friction, I have simply reacted—thrown up internal defenses to protect my ego. Somehow, this time, it’s been different. While that has remained my initial reaction, at some point in our discussions something has clicked—and in an instant of transcendence, I can hear what she’s hearing, and feel what she’s feeling. More beautiful still, she has done the same with regard to me.

Imagine how much better off we’d all be if we could do this in the wider world—in discourses, in other words, with friends, casual acquaintances and strangers alike. In these difficult times for our nation and our world, we need to strive for this more fervently than ever.

The challenge is formidable. The number one problem with our soon-to-be president, after all, is that he appears to have no capacity for empathy whatsoever. I mean, think about it: Could someone with even a shred of empathy have mocked a person with a disability and then, instead of apologizing for doing so, insisted that he hadn’t really done that? Could an empathic person brag about grabbing women by the pussy? Could someone who feels the pain of others have denigrated a father and mother who had lost a son in battle?

Of course not.

But the trouble doesn’t stop with him. The tone of his campaign has had a ripple effect, which has led many of his supporters to shut down their own empathic impulses toward all sorts of groups and individuals.

Rest assured, however, that it is not my intention here to launch into another extended rant about Trump. As I see it, we all need to do a better job of cultivating empathy.

Nor am I suggesting that it’s all Trump’s fault. On the contrary, our president-elect, to my mind, is merely a personification of a disease in our culture that is deeper and more widespread than any of us can fully grasp.

Suffice it to say, the disease is most glaringly evident on social media platforms like Facebook, where individuals on the right and left alike hurl insults at people they’ve never even met. One of the most egregious examples was in a comment I saw recently on Facebook in which someone called someone else a “libtard”—a new favorite expression of many on the political right. The term—a variation on retard— reflects a profound lack of empathy toward people with mental disabilities and their families. And in this case it so happened that I knew the woman who was the target of the insult. She has a son who suffers from severe autism. To the verbal attacker, however, she wasn’t a loving mother. She was a mere object of disdain.

But again, let me emphasize that many on the left can be equally guilty of this sort of thing. Hillary Clinton was herself when she characterized “half” of Trump supporters as “a basket of deplorables.” Some of them certainly are. We’ve seen them on video, calling Clinton a “cunt,” and Obama a “nigger.” We’ve seen it as well from some of Trump’s high-level supporters, such as retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who, in August, called Islamism a “vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people” that has to be “excised.” When he said that I immediately thought of some of my young Muslim students. I can assure you that their religion is not a cancer, and I suspect that if Flynn were to get to know them he would change his tune.

In spite of these egregious remarks, however, it does not serve leftists well to launch into their own hateful tirades against anyone who voted for Trump. For the life of me I cannot understand how anyone could have voted for him. But I know many people who did, and in many cases they are good, big-hearted people in their everyday lives. It would serve us well, as individuals and a nation, if we could—instead of denigrating them—strive to understand their own struggles.

This is something I hope to do, at any rate. For I know that far too often, not only in past relationships but in public discourse, I have failed to cultivate empathy myself. And I know as well that I cannot hope to be a force for positive change unless I begin with honest self-examination.

Alas, I have friends on the left who will likely criticize me for this line of thinking. They will take it as a sign that I’ve grown soft and remind me that we must be firm in our resistance to Trump’s dangerous proposals.

Of course we must. Cultivating empathy in no way means abandoning moral or political principles. Quite the contrary: It is our only hope. In closing, I can think of no better example than that set by Martin Luther King Jr., who once said that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” This, to my mind, is a universal truth. And it is worth remembering, as we reflect on it, that empathy is the fundamental prerequisite for love.