Empathy

This post from David Atkins has got section in it that really sums my sort of thinking. Atkins writes:

Yes, I have worked hard, and yes, I have been frugal and had good predictive judgment. In theory, I could easily say that I earned my good fortune and tell these people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and take their hands off my tax dollars. In theory.

But doing that would make me a delusional, self-absorbed narcissistic asshole.

My thoughts exactly. I think I’m good at what I do and I won’t pass up credit if I think I deserve it, which I sometimes do. That said, I don’t know where I’d be if I didn’t have lots of stuff that’s just a product of luck. A family that cares about me, very early exposure to reading, an environment at home that encouraged me to work in school, parents who were financially secure enough to spend time with me and be involved with what I did, parents that were around period, etc, etc. I can’t control any of that stuff and I lucked out, just like Atkins says he did.

That’s why this segment, from Bob Somerby, struck a chord with me:

Can we talk? You can understand how a person thinks without sharing her ultimate judgment—unless you lack a certain je ne sais quoi. (Atticus Finch described it to Scout as the ability to walk around in someone else’s shoes.)

I think his definition of ’empathy’ is a good one. The Atticus Finch line is apropos.

I interpret empathy in a similar way. That’s actually something we’ve talked about in class, too, that people who are more empathetic are more likely to succeed. That makes sense to me, I think in part because I interpret empathy as going beyond being in someone’s shoes; it also means being non-judgmental about other people’s values, which I think is what Somerby’s alluding to. There are, of course, limits to that sort of relativism (Nazis, racists, violent criminals are pretty hard to give a pass to), but for the most part, I think this mindset just refers to not giving people crap over differences that seem important but really aren’t. Or even giving people the benefit of the doubt if you do have serious disagreements by still refraining from imputing bad faith.

Because there are so many things in this world that I don’t understand. I don’t get why men spit gum in urinals where there’s a trash can in the same room. I don’t get why women who don’t have perfect bodies wear those sleeveless type shirts that make them need to adjust every ten seconds so that they don’t reveal a little extra. I don’t understand how people can watch VH1. I don’t understand how people can have strong feelings about celebrities they’ve never met. The list goes on and on.

There’s no way to judge, though. There are tons of people out there who can’t get how people can be fascinated by politics and read about that stuff for hours on end. I know they think I’m weird. So that’s what grounds me. I know my interests aren’t universal, so I’ve got no real desire to hate on other people’s interests, even if I think that those interests are dumb. I think that makes me good at PR, because a huge part of being able to do PR, and communicate with people in general, is being able to let that sort of minor stuff go.

It’s really hard for me to think of a person in the past four years of my life that I’ve known and not been able to get along with. I’m sure I’ve met people who didn’t really like me for some reason or another, but I really do struggle to remember someone recent with whom I’ve been totally unable to coexist. And sure, that’s in large part because we all aren’t dickhead teenagers anymore. But at this point, I just try to find some common ground and work with that. And I think it usually works out pretty well.

I also think having a mother that you don’t win arguments against, no matter how right you are, plays a part in this tendency. I learned to just shut it and let things go by the age of 14 or 15, because it just wasn’t ever worth it. And I’ve found that to be true with more and more people that I meet. Not that they aren’t reasonable and less crazily obstinate than my mom, just that I don’t have any stomach to argue over trivial stuff. What’s the point? There are lots of other ways I’d rather spend my time.

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