Thursday, February 10, 2022

Everyone Here Has Been Broken

If we could understand the nuances of empathy, often the missing link in ignorance and conflict, the world would truly be a better place for all.

We talk about personal space all the time. We commonly understand that invading one's personal space is a not-so-good thing to do. As with many things we say because we've always said them, I'm not sure we really understand what we're asking of ourselves when we commit to giving each other our 'space.' Perhaps we don't even understand what we're asking ourselves not to do. 

How well do we understand what we're referring to as our "space?" I'm not sure.

A thought experiment...

Let's say that in the context of human interactions we can identify C waves (connoting cognitive interactions,) E waves, (connoting emotional interactions,) and P waves, (connoting physical interactions.) To simplify cognitive waves can be described as any form of understanding, while E and P waves are variables that affect our ability to understand. In other words, how we feel about our learning, and the environment we learn within, are pivotal elements that determine largely how well we actually learn in the cognitive domain. Since Descartes we've generally accepted that C waves were the independent variable, but what if in fact E and P waves create authentic constraints; challenges to our ability to comprehend and fully understand the phenomenological realities, our environments, and the people we encounter within them?

Perhaps instead of telling ourselves we should avoid getting in others' personal spaces, we should be committing to absolutely getting in the personal spaces of others.

More so than ever in our currently troubled world, it's vitally important that we are afforded the right to exist in emotionally and physically safe environments. In context, I will say that emotional safety means very simply that feelings are respected, acknowledged, and supported, and physical safety means that we aren't made to feel anxious about the environments we need to interact with. In order to engineer emotionally and physically safe environments of respect and understanding, we need to ground our perspective in a foundation of empathy.

Empathy is often confused with sympathy but the difference is very important to understand. From
Empathy is the ability to experience the feelings of another person. It goes beyond sympathy, which is caring and understanding for the suffering of others. Both words are used similarly and often interchangeably (incorrectly so) but differ subtly in their emotional meaning.
Empathy is the key as it relates to the stories that every member of society carries around with them every day. The stories already written, the real-time story they're writing in the present, and the story they have yet to write in the future. As described by Steven van Bockern, the story already written is like a cultural tale (tail) that cannot be changed, cannot be cut off, but is always behind us and not necessary to lead us in any particular direction at all. 
Steven Van Bockern as posted here,

The cultural perspective we all hold is shaped by our experiences as influenced by our birthplace, our family, our spirituality and the zeitgeist within which we were born; it’s the cultural reality lens we look through. Our cultural identity starts to form beginning the moment we’re conceived. Obvious physical characteristics and genetic traits define our culture in part from that second. After we’re born, the evolving cultural identity we form is largely influenced by our relationships and surroundings. Steve Van Bockern, coauthor of “Reclaiming Youth at Risk- Our Hope for the Future” refers to the influences of different cultural aspects as our cultural tail. I had the pleasure of attending a retreat with Steve on the Morley Indian Reservation west of Calgary in 2002. He explained that we can’t cut off our cultural tail; it’s always there, behind us affecting our perspective, but also that great things are possible in everyone’s future despite this tail that follows us.

Whether good, bad or indifferent, our cultural tail tells the story of where we’ve come from; who we are in terms of how our environments affect us, but it doesn’t have to predict where we’re headed. From a cultural perspective, in many ways we begin our lives rather innocently. Like clay to the sculptor, we start as unformed material yearning to be molded and shaped into a more tangible form; our growing cultural identity. Just as soon as we see the light of the world we begin forming perceptions and feelings about our culture and how we are different from, or similar to others. We are the sum total of what we think we are. 
Steven went on to say in response to a question about what to do if your cultural tail is really, really bad. My colleague David Nicholson asked him, "do you just metaphorically cut it off?" Steven said no, you can't do that. 

Steven elaborated that our cultural tails are metaphors. They are tails that follow us everywhere we go; they're always behind us waving back and forth, but also that this reality doesn't dictate the direction in which we're heading, that's up to us. I would elaborate further in saying that our cultural tails can also be described as cultural tales; the phenomenological realities of our past, the stories that have already been written. These are the things that have shaped and formed us through experience. They are the building blocks that helped us form our purpose (or lack thereof) in life, the degree to which we became resilient, or not, how we objectify things, and how much antifragility we were able to manifest as a result of the strains caused by them. We all have a story, a narrative representation of every experience, every feeling, every relationship, every success, and every disappointment we've ever experienced. It's our phenomenological reality, and we don't make enough effort to get to know each others. In order to be influential positive conspirators in the writing of other people's stories, we need to be empathic.

Empathy is often described as the ability to walk in the shoes of another, and this is precisely what needs to happen if we're to begin to understand each other's phenomenological narratives and begin making informed connections with how people think and feel so we can begin building positive connections with them. We need to know each others' stories if we intend to support learning first in the emotional and physical domains leading to success in the cognitive domain. 

Unhappy, unmotivated, hurt, scared, and distracted people are prone to influencing others negatively by sharing their emotional and physical pain liberally. They will not learn effectively until these detractors are mitigated. People who are empathic, and elicit a display of empathy in others are those who understand this paradigm. Understanding the nuances of empathy (the alpha missing link in conflict and misunderstanding) makes us better, more effective communicators, and in turn, (one person and one problem at a time) the world a better place.

I would like to recommend reading The Science of Evil, by Simon Baron-Cohen. This book is an engaging perspective on empathy and the origins of cruelty. Don't let the title mislead you, however. By reaching into the extremes of evil from an analytical perspective, Baron-Cohen is able to present readers a very broad, but clear position on why empathy is critically important to humanity. He uncovers the science behind empathy providing us with much to mull as we navigate the complex people and systems we encounter every day. This book is important for anyone seeking a different and authentic path to more effective human interaction and a more hopeful influence on others. The author posits that we need to look through a more empathic lens in attempting to understand not how people feel, but rather why what they feel (or don't feel) makes them do the debilitating things they do. When we look through this altered lens we can stop blaming the person for the problem, but rather the influences of their phenomenology looking for other social and environmental factors that can erode their own state of empathy and the very damaging things they say and do as a result.

There is prevailing anxiety washing over us across society stemming from a perspective that there are only two ways to look at things, the right way, and the wrong way, and of course, subjectivity is the vessel of expression for what is deemed right, and wrong. It seems like polarity is omnipresent. Until the social-emotional (Ewaves) and physical needs (Pwaves) of people are addressed in effective ways, their cognitive needs (Cwaves) will remain unsatisfied, and their potential to see any different or altered perspective will never be actualized. That will continue to be a disastrous, dichotomous conflict eliciting reality.

Until we make the effort to walk a mile in the other person's shoes we eliminate any chance for a glimpse into the lives they have experienced outside of their emotions, their politics, their beliefs... their private logicAccording to Alfred Adler, until we commit to asking ourselves how others would finish the statements...

"I am... the world is... other people are... therefore..."

...we simply will not be able to positively influence anyone who hates or hurts. The challenges they face and the detractors they battle on their personal learning journey will remain unknown, and the problems they cause through their actions, feelings, and words will likely get worse before they get better, if they even do at all. We all must learn how to accept what cannot be changed, and engage our efforts more toward what can be learned from each others' phenomenological narrative. The problematic ways that troubled people behave in the present will not evolve to more acceptable displays of behavior in the present if we don't, and certainly not looking ahead to what should be their hopeful futures.

I never knew anyone who became successful by dwelling on an unfortunate past. Alas, those among us who are reflective of our past, but always glaring toward the future appear to do alright. This is the essence of resilience. Knowledge and understanding is the key to learning how to accept what cannot be changed. When we can objectify what has already happened we can then put that behind us, forgive, and begin to be a person who others are not offended or hurt by.

Sounds too simple to be true? It isn't, and there is really only one reason behind that. It's grounded in the concept of hope. I don't mean hope as in wishful thinking, I mean hope as in action. We all need to understand the statement, if it is to be, it's up to me. In order for reprehensible behavior to change, a sense of personal responsibility is necessary; the will to do it. Personal responsibility is a key element in taking action toward change, and until any really offensive, hurtful person understands this, all bets are off.

I will take "if it is to be, it's up to me" a step further to say that if all of us adopt this simple mantra of personal responsibility, then we can actually collectively accept that if it is to be, it's up to we. In the domain of Relationships on the HOPE Wheel, this is where interdependency becomes so critical. We can help other people understand the error of their ways if we can understand the phenomenological context behind them, and we can seek the help of others in kind with respect to our own stories already written.

One strategic mindset in support of this realization is to try to give every person you encounter a proverbial 'A'. Rosamund Stone Zander and Ben Zander said it best in their book, "The Art of Possibility"...
When we give an A we can be open to a perspective different from our own. For after all, it is only to a person to whom you have granted an A that you will really listen, and it is in that rare instance when you have ears for another person that you can truly appreciate a fresh point of view.
In the measured context of our everyday lives, the grades we hand out often rise and fall with our moods and opinions. We may disagree with someone on one issue, lower their grade, and never quite hear what they have to say again. Each time the grade is altered, the new assessment, like a box, defines the limits of what is possible between us.
To me having "ears for another person" doesn't mean I have to accept what they've done, said, or felt. It means I have to listen to the person's story, and in doing so, their troubled world becomes my troubled world, however off-putting and difficult that may be, and the reflective possibilities this creates empower authentic conversations surrounding the story behind the story. My role is to listen, not judge. I can then take an empathetic stance and think rationally and critically about what led to the behaviour/s in question, but perhaps more importantly, about how to think the problem differently toward more desirable outcomes. Accepting the realities of a troubled person's world is very, very hard, but it allows us to understand the story behind their behavior story, and all the clues regarding why we see what we see in that person's actions and reactions become clearer. Both parties gain the ability to begin contextualizing the variables that led to the display of adverse, offensive, and hurtful behavior in the first place.

Only then is any sort of positive change even possible.

Hurt people, hurt people.

To understand behavior, we need to understand the story behind it, not the purpose in front of it.


  1. Thanks to hope Alliance for taking me here and I believe in positive change in life and the people that always hold the ladder for you to climb to the top and make your dreams come true

    1. You're welcome. I really like your "hold the ladder" metaphor.


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