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Why We Should Try

A bunch of people have been linking to and discussing the recent New York Times piece on empathy. The assertion is made that while people often state variations of we need to walk a mile in another person’s shoes, we are awful at actually doing so and the task may be impossible in practice.

So where does that leave blogs?  Because part of my reason for reading blogs is to imagine a life unlike my own.  I’m less drawn to blogs that mirror my own way of thinking and more toward blogs that serve as a window into a life different from my own.  I mean, every life is different from my own since… you know… that whole every human being/situation is unique thing.  But you know what I mean.

So is there a reason to keep reading blogs?  Do they become solely entertainment if they’re not actually a tool for building empathy?  I know some people read blogs as if they’re a reality television show, tuning in for the next installment to see what happens to X or what was the outcome of Y.

But for those of us who tune in not to be entertained but instead to be taught… can we really be taught?  Or is that all just hopeful thinking in our brain?

Because I agree with the NYT’s author:

It’s impossible to actually imagine what it would be like to have certain deeply significant experiences, such as becoming a parent, changing your religion or fighting a war. The same lack of access applies to our understanding of others. If I can’t know what it would be like for me to fight in a war, how can I expect to understand what it was like for someone else to have fought in a war? If I can’t understand what it would be like to become poor, how can I know what it’s like for someone else to be poor?

If others can’t really imagine what it is like to be me, how can I believe that I can imagine what it is like to be someone else?  Our imaginations are really really really limited.

Still, this is a case where I think giving it the old college try is more important than success.  Maybe we need to start from an understanding that we won’t have success and be okay with that.  Instead, it’s the effort expended, the attempt made, the desire to try.  That a willingness to consider someone else’s reality is more the point than actually succeeding in understanding someone else’s reality.

At least, that’s my hope.

Your thoughts?

A side note: tomorrow is #MicroblogMonday.  Get writing.


1 Hélène { 06.21.15 at 11:56 am }

“He sang as if he knew me in all my dark despair
And then he looked right through me as if I wasn’t there”

My thoughts? Either it’s a profound philosophical discussion about reality existing outside the field of a person’s personal experience and then I’m not qualified to comment, or the author is wrong: there aren’t any experiences that are completely like our own and if we weren’t able to feel at least a degree of empathy we’d all be lost in little islands of our own.

There are actors able to inhabits characters that talk deeply to our own feelings while they never personnaly experienced it. There are authors that can write characters so completely unlike themselves while still making them feel to true. Terry Pratchett’s Esme Weatherwax is one of the best women characters I know of and he’s not even a woman! Granny Weatherwax feels so much like my own mother (well, apart from the still a maiden thing…) that’s it’s uncanny, and behind the funny fantasy world she expresses quite a lot of feelings that totally resonate with me.

2 Mali { 06.21.15 at 8:16 pm }

I think the thing that gets me here is that they say it is impossible to imagine X or Y unless you’ve done it. I disagree. It is possible to imagine. We may not want to imagine (which I think occurs more often), and we will almost certainly not do it accurately – I think that’s the point of the article – but then, one person’s experience is going to be different to another person’s anyway. So I wholeheartedly agree with Helene (and how fabulous to reference Terry Pratchett) and you. Trying is good.

Loribeth wrote a great piece on “I can’t imagine” some time ago. – but I can’t find it. Loribeth?

3 Middle Girl { 06.21.15 at 10:23 pm }

I think we can (and do) imagine and we do empathize. But, then what? We don’t allow that what happens there affects us here (wherever those may be). We wring our hands, shed our tears, maybe even send a card or sign a petition. We change our profile pictures to black squares or faceless hoodies.

And then we carry on until the next thing brings us to our knees, so to speak.

Yes, we must try. We must be willing to listen and open up to the idea that _____* is wrong, _____* is an atrocity and something must be done to quell repeats. *whatever THIS or IT is.

4 Mali { 06.21.15 at 11:09 pm }
5 illustr8d { 06.22.15 at 10:13 am }

My answer to this is too long for a comment. I will thank you for the food for thought.

6 DublinGal { 06.22.15 at 10:55 am }

I remember reading somewhere that people with little empathy only care strongly about and empathize with people directly connected to them such as family members whereas people with lots of empathy can feel it and care deeply for people far away, such as starving kids in Africa. I do think that blogs give us a window into different people’s lives and helps you empathize with different situations.

7 Lori Lavender Luz { 06.23.15 at 8:18 pm }

I agree with your conclusion that we can aim for an A for effort.

“Do [blogs] become solely entertainment if they’re not actually a tool for building empathy?”

I do see them as a tool for building empathy. In fact, in reading a ton of birth parent, adoptee, and adoptive parent blogs, I ended up writing a book advocating that people get to know other perspectives (doing so certainly changed my view of adoption and the way I parent).

Probably the one big thing we get from attempting empathy is suspending judgment.

8 loribeth { 06.27.15 at 9:58 pm }

Glad you found it, Mali, because I looked (before I scrolled down to your second comment) & I couldn’t! 😉

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