Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Empathy in the Age of Acceleration

Driving to school yesterday, I hit some gnarly traffic and began to feel stressed that I’d get there late for my class. So ever-maneuvering to beat the traffic (and without the use of WAYS), I turned down an alley. As I approached the end to turn onto the next street, someone waved his arms with jumper cables in them and shouted at me, “Hey, can you stop and help us?!” My first response (which he couldn’t hear) was “I don’t have jumper cables” and it’s just as well, because he would have called me the idiot I was. He had the cables and just needed me to stop and let him attach them to my battery.

But the other problem was that I was stressed that I was late. The whole operation probably would have been 3 minutes max and in the end, I could have done it without being late. I have a feeling he called me a name I probably deserved and it wasn’t “Good Samaritan.” I felt bad about it, but not bad enough to go around the block and re-enter the tangled traffic and turn down the alley again. I’d like to think someone more generous would come down the street, but since it was an alley, it wasn’t that trafficked. And so to that stranger I say, “Sorry!! My bad!”

My school is “moving forward” with a strategic plan and one of the items on it is called “Empathy in the Age of Acceleration.” I think it’s mostly about increasing computer use and skills amongst our students, but since we have over a half-century practicing of cultivating humanitarian promise in our kids, someone figured they better stick the word “empathy” in that soundbyte. But I suspect no one really thought it out very deeply, “What the heck does that mean? Empathy in the Age of Acceleration? And what’s our plan and strategy to achieve it?"

As my jumper cable story so sadly illustrates, I think Empathy and Acceleration start off at opposite sides of the field. When we’re in a hurry and stressed and juggling ten balls at once in the air, we are not inclined to even notice that someone needs a pat on the back or a hug or a listening ear or a sandwich. And if we do notice, we have to seriously think, “Do I have the time and attention to really listen to the story of the dog that just got run over by the car? Would it be rude to look at my watch with the person sobbing on my shoulder? Or if the dog was there and still breathing, do I really have time to take him to the hospital?”

I’d suggest that an accelerating hyper-paced life is an enormous roadblock to empathy. Sure, we have instant access to the ten million stories of sorrow and suffering around the globe, but does that increase one iota our capacity to feel them and respond to them? I don’t know about you, but I start to shut down and shut them out because no one human heart can hold all that suffering at once. And there is nothing about life on screens that encourages empathy. Just note the cyber-bullying and flaming that is rampant because you never have to look the person at the other end in the eye and see or feel how your words impact him or her. I think it’s pretty widely-accepted that the shelter of the screen brings out our baser selves much more than our more elevated ones.

So I’m not pleased with this title. It glibly tries to be everything so we look good, but I really care about language saying what it means and meaning what it says and I don’t see that this makes any sense at all. And if you disagree and are angry with me for expressing this point of view, I’d like to empathize with your reaction. But the Warriors are about to come on TV and I gotta run to see the game. Sorry. I have no time for you. And don’t ask me to help you with your stalled car either.

Go Warriors!

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