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Empathy

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Musical Chairs

We have all played musical chairs at some point in our childhood. You remember, that game where there is a circle of chairs, one less than the number of people playing, and as everyone walks around the chairs, music is playing. When the music stops, everyone tries to sit down in one of the chairs and the person who doesn’t have a chair is eliminated from the game. Then one chair is taken out and you keep playing until there is only one person left and he or she is the winner.
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Listen For The Music

Lately I have found myself in everyday situations in my business, with my friends and family, walking down the street, when I am travelling or scrolling through the newsfeed on Facebook and I watch the arguments, I see the fights, I see the criticism and the anger and the self-righteousness. I see it in others and I see it in myself. I can be quick to criticize and quick to make judgements until I learn the whole story, or should I say the other side of the story. Or I see people fighting different battles: health issues, day to day struggles in their life brought on by circumstances beyond their control, living situations that I have no experience with and I see them do it all with a smile on their face and the knowledge that all is well and as it should be.

I don’t want to be the one always afraid that the music will stop and I won’t have a chair in the old game of musical chairs but perhaps there is a new game of musical chairs that we can play. A game that goes something like this…..

The New Musical Chairs

• You are in a meeting at work and you are not agreeing at all with the other person. All of a sudden you here music and when it stops, you have switched places and the two of you are sitting in each others chairs and seeing the other person’s point of view.

• You are with your partner and having a discussion, let’s be honest, it’s an argument and you are not seeing eye to eye. All of a sudden you hear music and when it stops you have switched places and you are seeing the situation through your partner’s eyes.

• You are walking down the street and see a homeless person on the street. You avoid looking at them as you pass by. All of a sudden you hear music and when it stops you are sitting on the street and looking up at passer-by’s.

• You are on the bus, or in the plane or on the train and you look over and see someone perfectly dressed and at peace with themselves and looking out the window. They don’t look like they have a care in the world. All of a sudden you hear music and you find yourself looking out the window and wondering how you are going to get through the day today.

• You are in a miserable mood. Nothing is going right. Everything is wrong and you look over and there is someone in a wheel chair smiling as they make their way down the street. All of a sudden you hear music and when it stops you realize that you can’t feel your legs as you sit in a wheel chair and you are grateful for all that you have at this very moment.

The minute I can put myself in someone else’s shoes instead of everything being always about me the possibilities seem endless – in my business, in my personal life and in my place in the community. This new game of musical chairs seems to only have winners…..wanna play?

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Is Empathy Enough?

From a purely external point of view there is no will; and to find will in any phenomenon requires a certain empathy; we observe a man’s actions and place ourselves partly but not wholly in his position; or we act, and place ourselves partly in the position of an outsider. ~ T. S. Elliot 

We hear a lot about empathy these days as if it is the driving force to help others. But is it? The word empathy was only created somewhere around 1905. Does that mean that we didn’t have empathy before that? Was there not the need for it? Is empathy something that became necessary after the Industrial Revolution and the world that developed from it at the turn of the century? Why the need then to create that word?

Empathy is about spontaneously and naturally tuning into the other person’s thoughts and feelings, whatever these might be […]There are two major elements to empathy. The first is the cognitive component: Understanding the others feelings and the ability to take their perspective […] the second element to empathy is the affective component. This is an observer’s appropriate emotional response to another person’s emotional state. ~ Simon Baron-Cohen

I would argue that empathy is not enough or not even natural. Is that our driving force? Are we not out for ourselves first? Must we not be taught and learn how to give and to share? Or have I got it all wrong and that innately we are empathetic? But that is not what I see today. I see entitlement as the buzzword of this generation where it is I first and everyone else second? With all due respect to the late Steve Jobs, where is the empathy in IPhone, IPad, or IPod – it looks like we are all being taught that it is all about me me me.

In the end, it seems that empathy just gets in the way of getting things done. If we didn’t have to put ourselves in someone else’s mental shoes wouldn’t life be a lot easier? Couldn’t we get to our goals much faster without worrying about someone else’s feelings? If we didn’t have empathy before 1905 why do we need it now?

Nobody is against empathy. Nonetheless, it’s insufficient. These days empathy has become a shortcut. It has become a way to experience delicious moral emotions without confronting the weaknesses in our nature that prevent us from actually acting upon them. It has become a way to experience the illusion of moral progress without having to do the nasty work of making moral judgments. In a culture that is inarticulate about moral categories and touchy about giving offense, teaching empathy is a safe way for schools and other institutions to seem virtuous without risking controversy or hurting anybody’s feelings. ~ The Limits of Empathy by David Brooks

Empathy is not enough. We must look beyond to something that we are usually far too afraid to affront, that which is deep within us. It is our fear that we cannot that must be tackled to allow ourselves to help others. Who needs empathy if we would simply learn to put ourselves second instead of always first?

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