Do you even empathize? How empathy training and communication can save us from ourselves

One word keeps surfacing in my mind over the past several weeks as headlines reveal the latest stream of human rights and environmental atrocities undertaken by our own government. Empathy.

As I learn of children being separated from parents in the name of border control, presidential decrees opening all U.S. waters to offshore drilling, and the dismantling of the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act, I can’t help but wonder—what place does empathy have in our current society?

This word, coincidentally, popped up on a number of articles and videos I’ve seen recently. Obviously, I’m not the only person distraught both by these troubling media headlines and by people’s callous responses to them. Whatever the ultimate consequences of our current political leaders’ actions, they’ve certainly shone a spotlight on just how wide the spectrum of values is in our country, values that run much deeper than political views alone.

Fear Leads to the Dark Side

In a 2017 HuffPost piece titled I Don’t Know How To Explain To You That You Should Care About Other People, author Kayla Chadwick expressed this growing angst over a seemingly unbreachable moral divide among U.S. citizens:

“I don’t know how to convince someone how to experience the basic human emotion of empathy. I cannot have one more conversation with someone who is content to see millions of people suffer needlessly in exchange for a tax cut that statistically they’ll never see. Our disagreement is not merely political, but a fundamental divide on what it means to live in a society, how to be a good person, and why any of that matters.”

Chadwick implies that today’s conservative values reflect a lack of empathy for those in need (especially those outside your immediate family/ingroup), instead emphasizing one’s own financial wellbeing over others. While I agree it’s pretty obvious that the current Republican administration is driven by self-aggrandizement above all else, I don’t think it’s fair to attribute our country’s steady loss of empathy and compassion to one particular political party. To me, lack of empathy seems to correlate with a much more deeply rooted tendency that knows no political boundaries—greed.

Greed is closely allied with fear; i.e., the fear of losing possessions, losing power, and losing one’s sense of identity. “Our society is paralyzed by fear, making our compassion paralyzed,” says Dr. Joan Halifax, a medical anthropologist and Zen practitioner. Halifax argues that compassion is an inherent human quality, but stimulating this compassion often relies on activating specific conditions.michael-fenton-512963-unsplash.jpgIn other words, you can’t force someone to feel empathy. But what you may be able to do is provide the right enabling conditions that allow feelings of empathy and emotion to emerge. This concept of ‘compassion cultivation’ isn’t just the fancy of new-age healers and Buddhist monks. Plenty of scientific and medical studies have shown that feelings such as compassion, altruism, and empathy can be enhanced via specialized training—and that the results are beneficial to the individual as well as society at large.

Stanford University’s medical center, for example, has a Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education that hosts workshops and other specialized trainings that teach participants ‘how to train your mind to intentionally choose compassionate thoughts and actions and develop skills that help you relate to others—and yourself.’ Their courses, designed by clinical psychologists and researchers from Stanford, include lectures, discussions, meditations, breathing practices and more to help people reduce their anxiety and build their emotional resilience in professional and personal environments.

This type of self-introspection training stretches far back to ancient eastern philosophical traditions, including Vedic and Buddhist teachings, centered on compassion via mindfulness and equanimity – meaning that you can cultivate feelings of compassion by listening to your inner voice, strengthening intuition, remaining calm in the face of adversity, and being present in each moment.

Empathetic Science?

In this era of runaway capitalism and blatant disregard for scientific consensus, what does it mean to be a scientist and a concerned citizen? Historically, being a credible scientist meant remaining objective and apolitical. But can scientists afford to stay disconnected from today’s critical ethical and moral crises? Or can they maintain credibility and perhaps even build more trust in science by engaging more fully in ethical and moral debates?

According to climate scientist Sarah Moffit in a recent interview with Grist Magazine, being a scientist and an advocate do not have to be mutually exclusive. “I think you can be both rigorous and objective and be human at the same time,” she says. “And I have come to a place where I’m no longer willing to divorce my humanity from the science that I have participated in and am stewarding.”

As a science communicator, I’ve come to see my role as a science empathizer and a human empathizer. In other words, I am committed to accurately communicating about scientific research, and equally committed to understanding human values and concerns—ideally breaking down barriers of understanding.

My goal is also to make us stop and think about the way our worldviews and cultures shape our assumptions about reality as much as (or more than) factual knowledge does, and how these assumptions often lead to misconceptions, fear, and prejudice. Many research studies have proven that our perception of ‘factual truth’ is shaped by our partisan beliefs and bias.

Even our ability to discern whether a statement is fact or opinion is based on whether we agree with the statement. The more we can reflect on our individual subjective experiences and how they affect our connection the world, the better we will be able to empathize with the views and experiences of others. We don’t have to share the exact same values to respect and empathize with others—we only need the capacity to be self-reflective and to engage in meaningful dialogue.

Science, philosophy, and intuition tell us that cultivating empathy and compassion is beneficial to our own health and wellbeing (including immunity, psychological health, and spiritual growth), that of our friends and family, and that of society as a whole. What greater reason could there be to emphasize these qualities in a time when they are needed perhaps more than ever?

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A message of Optimism on World Oceans Day

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Today is World Oceans Day—a day to recognize the life-giving resources the ocean provides, and a day for all ocean-related organizations to create a united front on social media to bring attention to ocean issues.

In my last post, I discussed my capricious relationship with social media and its ability to both connect us with pressing global issues and to distract us with fluff and humor. Nonetheless, a large portion of my job involves keeping track of and contributing to social media, and I recognize how useful these venues can be for sharing positive stories of change that may even ignite action, whether it be signing a petition or joining an awareness event.

This week, hundreds of organizations are contributing stories and posts to the web-o-sphere via the #OceanOptimism hashtag to spread messages of hope and solutions in the face of daunting environmental challenges. As I’ve written before, it’s easy to become overwhelmed with sadness, even defeatism, when you work in a field like environmental or social justice. There’s even a term for it: compassion fatigue, a condition recognized especially in nursing and disaster response circles where workers are confronted with too much trauma and suffering.

In the ocean conservation realm, a number of people and organizations have attempted to combat such emotional exhaustion by emphasizing solutions rather than simply bombarding the public with the problems we face. It’s all about re-framing, or re-branding as the case may be. One example: Mission Blue, the organization founded by famous oceanographer Sylvia Earle, has identified several ‘hope spots’ around the world’s oceans—regions of remarkable biodiversity that are deserving of special protection.

Map of Hope Spots identified by Mission Blue as key ocean regions deserving of special protection.
Map of Hope Spots identified by Mission Blue as key ocean regions deserving of special protection.

In light of the special attention the oceans are receiving today, I wanted to share some inspiration that has improved my outlook on the future, and hopefully will do so for you as well.

There are many stories of hope and positivity out there from scientists working at the front lines of conservation and management. This Huffpost article, written by Smithsonian National Museum scientist Nancy Knowlton, is a recent example of a newer approach highlighting success stories, like the improvement of fisheries management policy in the U.S., or increases in humpback whale and sea otter populations due to improved protection.

Finding political leaders who have the passion, let alone the capacity, to link human wellbeing with environmental protection is even more difficult than coming up with conservation success stories. Hence the recent news that Mauritius has sworn in its first female president is particularly inspiring—not just because President Ameenah Gurib-Fakim is a woman, which is notable enough—but because she is also a biologist. In a TED talk last year, Gurib-Fakim explained the scientific and social relevance of a number of threatened plants, arguing that the protection of nature’s biodiversity is, in effect, the protection of our own health, culture, and future. Now, as her nation’s president, she has the rare opportunity to combine an acute scientific understanding of nature with the political will to protect valuable natural resources.

The island nation of Mauritius lies within the biodiversity hotspot region of the Indian Ocean.
The island nation of Mauritius lies within the biodiversity hotspot region of the Indian Ocean.

It’s true that Muaritius is just one tiny island in a huge world of competing socio-economic and political challenges. But most societal changes start small, and overtime snowball until critical mass is achieved. I’m inspired by Gurib-Fakim’s dedication to her people and homeland. As she stated:

“Climate change is a big concern for us — it can be felt in terms of the seasons, and we’re seeing very strong, violent storms. A strong voice needs to be heard. Sustainable development has everything to do with our identity of being Mauritian and of being a biodiversity hotspot.”

It’s a tricky balance to honestly present the direness of society’s most pressing challenges while simultaneously trying to convince people that we are capable of handling them. Yet that’s the tale of humanity: one of extremes, of contradictions, and of overcoming seemingly impossible struggles. The way we perceive the world all depends on how we choose to frame challenges and solutions. If we choose optimism and positive action, our world will be defined by these constructs.

On this #WorldOceansDay, I for one choose #OceanOptimism.

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What’s wrong with being wrong?

egoI feel like most of the suffering that we as humans create for ourselves originates with just a few misguided behavioral tendencies that become reinforced by society until they solidify into norms that lead us astray from our true fundamental selves. One of those tendencies is the habit of refusing to admit when we are wrong about something; i.e., our tendency to protect our worldview through defensiveness and refusal to accept new information/evidence that is presented before us as ‘truth’.

If we as individuals, as well as society as a whole, were better able to (or perhaps better encouraged to) admit when we are wrong about something and be open to other possibilities, we would subject ourselves to a significantly lower amount of suffering and delusion. The field of science, while far from an error or value free existence, is one of the few professions that appears to encourage a trial and error approach in which errors and mistakes are considered a valuable component of moving closer to the ultimate truth. When you are trained as a scientist, you prepare yourself for being wrong (or at least only partially right), for making mistakes, and for starting from scratch again and again. In fact, the scientific process thrives on this iterative approach in which incremental successes are built of a delicate play between errors and discoveries, until a clearer and more accurate picture of our world is slowly constructed across the eons.

Unfortunately, in most other professions (and societal roles), admitting that you are wrong is often considered weak or shameful–whether it be in the realm of law, politics, law enforcement, or even teaching, where admitting that you were wrong about something is typically perceived as losing face and credibility. Even as a parent, admitting wrongness to your children may feel like you are undermining your own authority and ability to garner respect. It’s quite sad really–most leadership positions require at least the appearance of unquestioning faith and confidence, even though most of us are fumbling about in this world looking for half-hidden answers. When you attempt to perform a task or gain understanding and are genuinely wrong, admitting your mistake should be considered noble and honest, not weak or wavering. It should be a sign of a thoughtful, critical, and scrutinizing individual.

We are all continuously re-writing our realities, coming to terms with who we think we are and how we engage the external world. Nothing is constant, so why must we pretend that our perceptions are so unwavering? Perhaps it is just an extension of our brain’s ability to filter out all ‘unnecessary’ information, to shield us from information overload. Maybe we shield ourselves from the many other possible ‘truths’ and ‘rights’ that don’t fit our personal worldviews or paradigms in fear that this openness would overload our sense of self, doing away with the Ego for good. It’s a legitimate fear—we spend our whole lives building up a sense of self, so the threat of losing it does seem great indeed. But maintaining that persona comes at great pain and often violence or emotional suffering not only for ourselves, but for others we subject to it.

Sometimes, I feel like we would all benefit from letting go of our sense of selves, at least temporarily, a bit each day. This is, really, the point of meditation, isn’t it? To let go of our ego, our ‘personality’, that is not the true US, just the caricature we have built up over the years to try to protect our underlying selves from pain and embarrassment (which, ironically, tends to open us up to even MORE suffering!). I wish we could all be better encouraged to lower our shields and respect each other for who we truly are, and to realize that everyone is valid, everyone makes mistakes, and that all paths may ultimately lead to the same place. Those that are misguided have become so lost in their solidified personalities, trying to protect themselves from being torn down, that they lash out at others, sometimes entire groups of people, causing great pain, only because they are crumbling inside.

I guess that the ultimate remedy for all of this defensiveness is compassion. Compassion allows people to let down their guard, to realize that their likes and dislikes, their understanding of science and religion, or their struggle for meaning in life, is all part of one giant puzzle–they fit together with everyone else, and we are constantly rearranging that puzzle in an attempt to ‘solve’ it, when in reality it is what we make of it! All the puzzle pieces are really just fractals of one giant ‘reality’, universe, existence, or whatever you want to call it.

If we could only admit that we are all ‘wrong’ sometimes (in that our perception is inevitably limited and as new information is introduced it is normal to evolve and negotiate new relationships with the world), we would be a giant step closer to the world that I think almost all of us imagines would be a ‘better’ place to live.

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