Sunday, February 10, 2019


"So what is 'empathy'?" Dr. Brené Brown asks, in "The Power of Vulnerability," a talk she gave in 2013 to the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce , "And why is it very different than 'sympathy'?"

An excerpt of this talk has been made into an animated short, The Power of Empathy, that seeks to provide images to go with Dr. Brown's words. It's been making the rounds at work in an extended discussion following a team presenting it at their offsite. The Power of Empathy, taken on its own, presents a Goofus and Gallant portrayal of Sympathy and Empathy. In the animation, there are three characters: a fox, who is enduring a difficult time in her life (as evidenced by the dark raincloud above her head), a bear who plays the role of Gallant Empathy and an antelope (I think) portraying Goofus Sympathy. While The Power of Empathy is, at its heart, simply part of a longer lecture, the animation makes it into a narrative of the different actions that Goofus and Gallant undertake to help the fox through her difficult time.

And while it's an entertaining narrative, I don't find it to be an accurate one. Dr. Brown preaches the virtue and connectedness of intentional vulnerability; the correct choice is always to be vulnerable. "Empathy is a choice," she says, "and it is a vulnerable choice, because in order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling." Sympathy, however, is undefined. Within the context of the video short, the audience is left to infer the definition of sympathy from the (unhelpful) actions of Goofus the antelope. But the inference that it appears that we are meant to draw is that to sympathize with someone is to avoid vulnerability, and thus, as Dr. Brown says, drive disconnection.

Being something of a contrarian (and having faced this sort of situation before), I was unwilling to cede the definition of "sympathy" to Dr. Brown, and so I turned to my trusty dictionary. One definition of "sympathy" that it offered was: "a sharing in the emotions of others, esp. the sharing of grief, pain etc." (The New Lexicon Webster's Dictionary of the English Language, p 1002) Sharing the grief or pain of another person does not strike me as avoiding vulnerability, or driving disconnection from that person.

Perhaps the disconnect comes in the difference between empathizing with a person and sympathizing with them. In the talk, Dr. Brown puts forth meaningless platitudes as examples of sympathy. "At least you know you can get pregnant," is the answer to "I've had a miscarriage." But if, as the dictionary tells us, to "sympathize" is "to feel or communicate sympathy," or "(esp. with 'with') to feel or express compassion for the sufferings, sorrows, etc. of others," then it stands to reason that one can sympathize dishonestly and/or, perhaps more importantly, simply poorly. And, as anyone who has received a store-bought card pre-printed with a maudlin sentiment in it, the stale flatness of platitudes is rarely comforting. Because platitudes may be considered a form of euphemism; they serve to obscure our actual thinking by presenting a pleasant face and, like euphemism more broadly, are usually more comforting to the person speaking them than to the audience; one can describe them in the same way that Dr. Brown has described blame: the discharging of discomfort and pain.

And here's where the exercise took a turn for the ironic in my mind. Dr. Brown points out that reserving judgment can be difficult, especially "when you enjoy it as much as most of us do." And the Goofus and Gallant formulation of The Power of Empathy is an implicit invitation to judge. The audience laughs (apparently enjoying their judgment) when she voices the sentiments that the antelope is animated to deliver. But the antelope is in just as much need of the audience's compassion, or empathy, as the fox. A lot of the time, the problem isn't with people's ability to be empathetic or properly sympathetic. The problem is the perception of empathy, sympathy and compassion as either limited resources or carriers of  moral hazard. Either way, they are best rationed; being too generous with them carries risks. The fox, with the obvious misery of a dark cloud raining on her is a safe recipient for empathy. The antelope, presented as self-centered and unempathetic, is not. But if one assumes good intent on the part of the antelope, she can be seen as just as overwhelmed as the fox. Sometimes, the best friend we can be isn't a very good friend; they're simply not capable of meeting the challenge set before them. The impulse to respond, to try to make things better, may be the wrong thing for someone seeking empathy, but it not necessarily indicative of a choice to lean away from vulnerability and connection. Sometimes, it's the best that we know to do, or the way that we've always been taught to do such things.

As I see it, the difficulty with obvious Goofus and Gallant scenarios is that they tend to push audiences to see the Gallant in themselves. People can listen to Dr. Brown speak, and nod along, confident that they'd never respond to a friend's lament that "I thnk my marriage is falling apart," with "At least you had a marriage." There may be a Goofus, but that's someone else, someone who isn't as intelligent and sensitive as themselves. But sometimes, the difference between Goofus and Gallant isn't intelligence, sensitivity or caring, but knowledge. At some point, everyone's new. At some point, everyone doesn't know how to handle a situation. It's only a question of whether they have the time to learn before they're called upon to perform. Those who don't are just as worthy of empathy as those who are more visibly lost.

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