Empathy and optimism

When talking with others over the past year or so, I've occasionally mentioned how I've been "working on my empathy". This usually prompts confused, awkward moments, but I've meant it wholeheartedly. The most basic way I've found so far to describe what this means is I've been attempting to be as mindful as possible in my interactions with others, and in my apprehension of their stories and personal testimony. My objective isn't just to comprehend what I'm reading, watching, or being told, but to do my best to re-experience, at least as much as is possible within my own head.

(Amusing, telling anecdote: after watching an "original series" Star Trek episode [or maybe it was an early movie?] featuring Spock successfully suppressing his baser human and Vulcan impulses, I said to my mother, "Wouldn't it be great if we could all be like that?" She told me years later that my posing that rhetorical question worried her deeply for some time afterwards.)

Far from some kind of wispy daydreaming exercise, this is a laborious process. Since our phenomenology is apparently automatic ("System 1" thinking, in Kahneman's terminology), assessing the uncountable set of signals and flashes that makes me feel like me is effortless, an instant-on flow state. Working on appreciating others' experience as more than an abstract intellectualization of circumstances demands the careful, conscious construction of a completely different mindset, replacing as much of the sinewy underpinnings of my own identity as much as possible, and allowing myself to slip into the result like a bath filled with ice water.

Working on being empathetic in the way I've described is intense (how could it not be?), but one of its more surprising effects on my day-to-day life has been how it's challenged my bias towards optimism. This bias has many roots; an impartial list might include the doctrine of American exceptionalism that I've been steeped in all my life; pop culture history of western society and technology that usually generalizes into a vector of ever-improving conditions for humanity at large; and my engineering and creative profession that is premised on the notion of individuals and small collectives being able to affect significant, tangible positive change.

There is truth in these influences, but each is a narrative better suited to providing comfort than actual enlightenment, like a fluffy, cozy blanket, so frail that the smallest poke or stretch yields a hole. The American project has always been fraught, its history pocked as it is with us repeatedly, collectively falling short of its promise. The postwar narrative of societal progress largely marks time on the backs of people overcoming adversity, usually spending far too little time on the fact that those adversaries should have been their brethren. The software engineering world I inhabit traditionally espouses a strictly technocratic problem-solving approach, fabulously appropriate when one's objective is to build a bridge, but yielding catastrophic (yet ironically, invisible) consequences when applied to qualitative effect.

I knew all of this before, in the same way that I had previously coldly intellectualized others' experiences. But the more I "worked on my empathy", the less I could wave at the footnotes to my optimistic bias as incidental, temporary hiccups on the way to The Future, akin to having to break a few eggs in order to make an omelet.

In hindsight, this isn't surprising: being as fortunate as I am, being empathic inherently requires trying to inhabit the stories of people that are or have been less so. Getting even a hint of the experience of people that have been failed by the American ideal (whether on its shores or abroad), people that are or have been treated as sub-human by their neighbours, people that have been ignored or personally injured by well-meaning but narrow-minded technologists…this made me question deeply those beliefs that previously sustained me so reliably. It seemed my optimism was a false idol, and I was despondent for a while.

What broke the malaise was my returning to the stories of people that embodied an eyes-wide-open sort of optimism, and trying to capture some of what made them push forward. Martin Luther King, Jr. remains front-of-mind for me, especially his last speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis on April 3, 1968 (multipart video), popularly remembered as ending with King prophesising his assassination the next day. Much of the speech is occupied with the particulars of that time and place, but some other passages spoke to me. In particular, King talked about the parable of the Good Samaritan, emphasizing the exercise of empathy in performing good works:

He got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy. But he got down with him, administered first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus ended up saying this was the good man, this was the great man because he had the capacity to project the "I" into the "thou," and to be concerned about his brother.

And later:

And so the first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked was, "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?" But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?" That's the question before you tonight.

Here Dr. King is imploring Memphis' black community to stand together, and not just pass on by those among them that needed aid. I found the fact that he felt the need to do this remarkable; a modern reader or listener might think that, in that time and place, poor blacks would do anything to support each other, but doing so was itself an act of protest, carrying risk to prospects and body. In the scheme of things, Dr. King's plea here was both critically important and an incredibly modest goal relative to his broader cause, but he agitated for it with all the vigor and determination he exhibited when discussing his grandest visions of peace and equality among races. His solemn, unyielding commitment to an unlikely cause even when facing his own demise overwhelmed me.

Now when I think of "real" optimism, I think of projects that demand a compassionate perspective, and recognition of those most different than I as my kin. It is our flawed human nature that such projects are more likely to fail than they are to succeed, their objectives so lofty and their opponents so tawdry and powerful that simply having an opportunity to work another day is a step forward: the Good Samaritan may just as well have been betrayed by the man on the road, who could have been luring him for ill cause, just as Dr. King was ultimately betrayed by his neighbours even while he worked towards ensuring that his country fulfilled the ideals it set out to live up to centuries prior.

We live in brighter times today, and so it is harder to see the stars. Maybe this is why I was lulled into adopting a triumphant, up-and-to-the-right flavour of optimism, a just-so Schoolhouse Rock tune of potential and incessant progress that is easy to bop to but impossible to build upon without maintaining an improbable naiveté. By working on my empathy, I feel like I have finally learned what optimism looks and feels like, and simultaneously gained the tools to practice it, too.