Exercise your empathy

10/10/2012

Think about what happens when you see an old friend you haven’t spoken to in years. This happened several times to me last year at South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, running into old friends from college, high school, and even elementary school, who I hadn’t seen in many years. You want to catch up, but of course you don’t have time to relay every minutia of your life like you do with friends you see every week. The last decade gets compressed into something like “I’m a designer, doing such and such. Got married, got divorced, moved here or there. What are *you* up to these days?”

We simplify and create bullet points, leaving out any emotional components, and sum up years in a matter of sentences. I think this is why it’s often difficult to reconnect with those we haven’t seen in a long time, as relationships require a lot of information exchange to be maintained. With a 10 year gap, you may as well be meeting a stranger, and starting over.

We compress information in a similar way when we view groups of people, such as cities. What kind of person comes to mind when you think of New York? Atlanta? Chicago? Seattle? San Francisco? I think most people have a stereotype in their head for each of those places. We can’t possibly cope with hundreds of thousands of people, so we reduce them to a handful of archetypes, often having never been there to see for ourselves.

If you’re a politician who spends all of his or her time in Washington, and instead of spending your time getting to know the people you represent, you’re in a bubble of similar people who study polls and data, you’re not likely to make decisions that really reflect what’s going on in the rest of the country. You may dismiss parts of the country as “a bunch of hippy liberals” or “a bunch of bible thumpers”, but you would be dismissing a lot of good people, whose values and problems are valid. No group of people can really be reduced to a single trait.

A similar pattern emerges when we zoom out further. What comes to mind when you think of countries like Mexico, France, Japan, Russia? Or Iraq, Iran, Afganistan? I think we often simplify those places to single ideas and stereotypes as well. The reality is that those places are just as diverse as the United States is. Within every community there are differences of opinions, and debates about how to solve problems, and cultural and value differences between generations, and a myriad of other problems. Even countries we consider largely homogenous, like Japan, are actually not all that different from our own.

But with distance comes compression. The result is that we dehumanize millions of people, reducing them to a small number of character traits. Shock and awe in Bagdad looks a lot different on CNN than it does from the inside of a building that just got bombed, and the suffering of AIDS babies in Africa is hardly captured by a Unicef ad. Empathy, it would seem, has a bandwidth problem, which decays with distance.

Take one more step back, one that very few people have ever actually made. Stand on the moon, and stare back at our pale blue dot of a planet. From such a distance, every country looks small, every person insignificant, every problem unimportant.

Apollo 8 astronaught Frank Borman summed up his experience this way: “The view of the Earth from the Moon fascinated me—a small disk, 240,000 miles away. It was hard to think that that little thing held so many problems, so many frustrations. Raging nationalistic interests, famines, wars, pestilence don’t show from that distance.”

The next step back is difficult to conceptualize. It was recently estimated that our galaxy contains at least 100 billion planets. And it’s estimated that there are over 100 billion galaxies. If the chance of life developing on a planet was 1 in 1 billion, our galaxy alone would have at least 100 other Earths. Assuming the makeup of other galaxies is similar, that would put the number of planets in the universe that have life at 10,000 billion (10,000,000,000,000,000)! Despite this, the distance between these worlds is so vast, it’s unlikely that one habitable planet would ever be able to find or communicate with another.

From such a distance this planet registers as an unnoticed speck of dust, not to mention everything that rests on it. I wonder how other worlds might judge ours; what is the stereotype for Earth?

With the perspective of the greatest distance imaginable, lets zoom back in real quick. Imagine your home, and your friends and neighbors. There are two ways we can look at them – in an existential way that ascribes little value to anyone or anything given the scope of existance; or in a more humanist way, that ascribes great value to each life. I have a hard time accepting the idea that everything is meaningless, so let us assume that they are valuable. Are they more valuable than any of the other 9 billion people on this planet though? Obviously they are to me, but I imagine everyone is valuable to someone else. Thus, we must conclude that everyone is roughly equal in value, as everyone is valuable to someone else.

I find this to be a valuable thought exercise, and a good way to expand the empathy bandwidth pipe. For everyone we pass on the street every day, each person is hugely important to someone else out there. The same goes not just for those around us locally, but globally. It’s too easy for us to forget that, to generalize and marginalize billions of people. It is in all of our best interests to remember that, and keep our empathy bandwidth as high as possible.