My four year old son Max from three feet away looked directly into my eyes, then down to my mouth, then back to my eyes.
“Daddy, why aren’t you talking?”
Right in the middle of playing, my mind drifted to this book, and I was staring out the window.
The intent of his question was more along the lines of: Where did you go? We were connected and playing. What happened?
Children are generally born with an innate ability to read and mirror facial emotions. I couldn’t have taught him to do that if I wanted to. Somehow, this programming is buried away in our DNA. Empathy makes us happy. It’s not simply play my son lives for, it’s shared experience and discovery. Abandoned children who are fed, kept warm, and left alone without human interaction have a tendency to die of natural causes. Unlike values, which are learned, we are born to empathize. When allowed to flourish empathy can even lead to love. And, like so many other gifts of our universe, we’ve taken empathy for granted.
We teach children that others are different or somehow less valuable. We shame young boys for crying and showing fear. We replaced in person exchanges with TV, phone, and computer screens. Once a humane pat on the back or high five. Now a digital thumbs up. We stonewall, bully, disrupt, and gaslight. We scare people with doomsday prophecies.
Here we are again, as always, wondering whether the new technology, generation, or emerging nation threat is the beginning of the end. The beginning of the end is not the flash before the mushroom cloud, the perfectly sentient machine, or the rising oceans — these are relics of ourselves. Take another look at human history. The beginning of nearly every end is ultimately rooted in empathy.
While most will agree on the issue, our values have stopped humanity from directly addressing our empathy problem. I’ve had many friends and colleagues stop me and say, “What are you smoking with this empathy stuff?” or “We’re not meant to quantify the soft sciences — that’s God’s role.” Some just say “Wow, sounds interesting” and quickly walk away. Our value systems, including religions and academic disciplines, have wired this response into our cultures. Setting empathy free subverts control and efficiency. As humanity has shown, work and control are needed — in appropriate context. Knowing the appropriate context for values and empathy is a key take away from this framework. Where values create balance for humanity, empathy creates direction.
While it’s easy to blame social constructs for our empathy flaws, the core of our empathy conundrum lies within. We all have our own realities. To justify our continued engagement in humanity we’re wired to believe our own reality is right and just. Individuality.
I started this book with no less of an intent than to avert World War III. It made so much sense to apply the thermodynamic duality of energy versus entropy, and the most rigorously tested physical laws of the universe, to explain our challenging duality of values versus empathy. Like so many others, I realized what I was really after during the journey: I needed to write about empathy because I struggle with it. I’ve known this struggle for decades. It’s one of many reasons I married my wife Chelsea, who’s naturally an empathic listener.
As Chelsea knows better than anyone else, “You’re so very analytical, all of the time, which kindof defeats the point of empathy.” Indeed there is a tendency for those who are not naturals to coach — I have to analyze and break empathy down in order to stay connected with others. But as a result of my deficiencies, I’ve always been able to help those around me aspire to something greater.
Now I look around my community and see people with wonderful values and connections struggling to understand the context for when and how to apply them to affect change — each of their stories a potential chapter or publication. At the same time, I’ve got new friends and colleagues who are going to do incredible things proving and applying this framework in many more ways than I can imagine. Hence, it’s time to set the book free. As Chelsea said, “You’re spending all of this time empathizing with your book’s readership, at the expense of empathizing with your family, friends, and community.”
When she said that, I finally knew how this book would end.
When you know the values that matter, and all of the ways, it’s time for a new beginning.
(Note: this post is one chapter of what could become a book someday. The other chapters can be found here: https://hydrogen.wsu.edu/dr-jacob-leachman/ )