Earlier this month, I got into a political disagreement with an old friend online. At that moment, the electoral outcomes of Super Tuesday loomed much larger in my mind than the fear of COVID-19 pandemic — truly, a different time. But each of these anxiety-inducing scenarios leads to a similar lesson: We have to look out for each other, in big ways and small. We have to make a habit of caring for the community — a practice, if you will, that takes practice.
Mindfulness is yesterday’s news. As a wave of recent books suggests, this moment is all about empathy.
“Empathy — at its most basic, the ability to imagine the feelings of another — is often described as a salve for divisions in American culture,” writes the author Kaitlin Ugolik Phillips in her new book The Future of Feeling. “In recent years, it has come to also be seen as a skill that can — and arguably must — be learned and practiced. It’s not just about social harmony; empathy makes us better people.”
The idea of empathy as both salve and skill is a hot one, and most of us won’t have to dig too far into our habits to understand why. Take, again, my recent social-media spat. Though my friend and I vigorously support the same candidate in the 2020 U.S. election, we’ve staked opposing positions in the ongoing debate over the value of civility in online discourse — that is, whether or not it’s worth trying to be nice to people to get them onto our side. What started as an abstract disagreement quickly started to feel personal: By expressing our opposing views, my friend and I each managed to thoroughly offend the other. Our positions weren’t just rooted in belief, but in our sense of identity within the context of society at large. In saying “I think you’re wrong,” we were each implicitly denigrating not only the other’s opinion, but who they were as a person.
As Ugolik Phillips’s book points out, there’s research to suggest that identity does, indeed, factor into the heated tenor of political debate. But there’s a reason why said debate gets so much pissier when it happens on social media — and becomes a test of our ability to empathize.
“A 2017 study seemed to prove what those of us familiar with online debates have feared for years: People we disagree with seem less human to us when we read their views than when we hear them spoken aloud,” writes Ugolik Phillips. Further research tells us that voices convey emotion, both through a person’s speech patterns and their tone. And the intimacy that allows us to associate a voice with a face we see all the time, she writes, establishes “a kind of expertise that allows a person to understand another’s mental state just by looking at them.”
Familiarity facilitates closeness, which in turn makes empathy easier to exchange. This makes sense, on a personal level, in light of the political arguments I’ve gotten into over the past few years — including the one I’ve just described. My friend and I have known each other since college and are part of an extended friend-family that keeps in close contact online, but we haven’t seen each other in person for nearly four years. For the most part, we experience each other as blocks of unmodulated text. This means that, for each of us, it takes work to step back and remember the person behind the Facebook posts.
As the author and parenting expert Kristina Kuzmič points out, this work can seem frivolous in the moment. “Choosing to interrogate your perspective in any way, and to consider the experiences of the people around you, doesn’t just threaten the ego; it can also seem like an inconvenient use of energy, especially in moments of disagreement,” she writes. But Kuzmič also views the practice of empathy as “the most important skill human beings can learn.” It’s a central theme in her new book Hold On, But Don’t Hold Still.
“If my kids want to build strong friendships, empathy is the most important thing I can teach them,” Kuzmič writes. “If they want to be political leaders or powerful CEOs? Again, empathy, because the best leaders connect with people and make them feel seen.”
But our cultural conception of what empathy means is slightly flawed. It’s not always possible (or sanitary) to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, as the author Euny Hong wisely argues in her 2019 book, The Power of Nunchi.
“If you are in someone’s shoes, you are compromising your own ability to see their problem — and the overall situation — objectively,” writes Hong. In other words: other people’s problems aren’t all about you, nor about how you interpret them. The Korean concept of nunchi, she explains, is an empathy-adjacent form of emotional intelligence that draws its power from neutrality: “Using your nunchi means that you can grasp what is happening even if you don’t have anything in common with the other person.”
It serves us all to flex that muscle right now — and to practice social outreach in this time of social distancing. In these anxious days, I’m heartened by a message shared on Instagram by the writer and activist Ripley Soprano: “Let’s not be afraid of each other. Let’s think about how to provide and receive support amid shared illness.” Empathy isn’t a cure for what ails us right now, but it is the answer.