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LIMITS OF EMPATHY

May 11th, 2019

No one can see the world like you do.

 

 

If a person could do so – to see the world exactly as you do, they would have had to be born in the exact same circumstance that you were, with the same parents and the same genetic coding and then go on to experience everything that you have.  This is, however, impossible, because that position in the universe is already taken.

 

The same goes for every single other person on the planet.  There is a finite limit to the empathy we can generate because our ability to see the world through someone else’s eyes ultimately hits this impenetrable barrier of non-experience.

 

We can try to imagine walking in someone else’s shoes, as the phrase goes, and we may even be able to walk that mile in their shoes, but we cannot do so as that person.  During the experience of that mile, no matter how grueling or enjoyable, each person will notice different things based on the sum influence of previous experience.

 

Recognizing this unbridgeable gulf is a first step to figuring out how to be more human.  Empathy is often touted as some sort of secret sauce with regards to showing one’s humanity, but it’s understanding the limits of this empathy and furthermore, acting accordingly.

 

The unbridgeable gap of non-experience, if considered seriously can illicit a sense of awe:  that other person you are interacting with is, in some sense living in a unique iteration of this universe.  Whatever information and experience we can toss over this gap through dialogue is somewhat transcendental, but from physical standpoint.

 

Recognizing the limits of empathy gives rise to the conclusion that another’s perspective is always valid from their point of view – no matter how flawed and dangerous that perspective.  Whereas we might normally see someone as stubborn, if we refresh our vision of such a person with the realization that there was no possible way they could have come to any other point of view, then our efforts to bluntly contradict such a perspective should look humorous if not idiotic.

 

A generous frame of mind for conversation is the only way of adequately addressing the limits of empathy.

 

The two single most pertinent signs of generosity within conversation is giving a companion in dialogue the time and the space to explain themselves to their own satisfaction and to then continue the conversation on the terms laid out by that person.

 

Many conversations take the appearance of two people simply trying to explain themselves.  But conversation breaks down in this way.  Effective conversation is only when one person is actively trying to explore the other person’s perspective through listening and questions regarding what the person says.  These two roles may flip-flop, but the second both people try to inhabit the roll of explaining their perspective, conversation unravels.

 

Such a case is the most accessible way to experience the limits of empathy.

 


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Podcast Ep. 391: Limits of Empathy

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