On Empathy

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These are dark times in the United States.

The worst pandemic in 100 years. The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The worst social outrage since the late 60’s. All happening at once.

This once-in-a-lifetime confluence of events has affected different people differently.

  • I have friends who are extremely careful about social distancing and wearing masks.
  • I have friends who think COVID-19 isn’t that big a deal and are getting back to normal.
  • I have friends who are out of work indefinitely due to the pandemic.
  • I have friends whose 25-year-old businesses have been obliterated by the pandemic.
  • I have friends who are out protesting racial injustice.
  • I have friends whose offices have been looted and their neighborhoods destroyed.

I’m highly conscious of the fact that I am less affected by what’s going on than most people: I’ve always worked from home. I have a career where there is a great demand for my services and I can’t be laid off. I have a great relationship with a wife who is also a stay-at-home-mom. I have 2 kids who are best friends. I live in a 4-bedroom-house with a pool in a suburb adjacent to parks, hikes, and the beach. The worst part of the last few months is that I can’t go to spin class and had to cancel concert tickets and travel plans. Which is to say that I’m in the 1% of the 1% of privilege and, therefore, in no position to tell anyone what to think or how to feel.

…this is a time for humility and empathy.

The reason I’m writing today is not that I have the one true insight that will magically heal the world, but, rather, for the opposite reason: because this is a time for humility and empathy. And, in my opinion, those are two qualities that are at an all-time low.

Stephen Covey famously said, “First seek to understand.” That is what I’m trying hard to do right now and what I’d like to gently suggest to you as well.

Whatever you’re feeling or posting on Facebook right now is valid.

Yet just because your feelings are valid doesn’t mean that they’re “right,” that anyone who disagrees with you is “wrong,” or that doing things your way is a universal win for everybody in society.

If you’re wary of the government, have issues around privacy and vaccines, you’re going to have a certain reaction to CDC guidelines and scientific recommendations – and your actions and rhetoric will reflect that.

I am trusting of government and medicine so I have no trouble wearing a mask, staying inside, social distancing, and taking directives from leading epidemiologists.

You’re not wrong. I’m not wrong.

If you’re a working mom like my sister, you want to send your child back to school so you can actually get things done, even if the coronavirus is not yet contained.

I don’t have the same issues and I’m not comfortable sending my kid back to school yet.

She’s not wrong. I’m not wrong.

If you’re an African-American like my close friend, Cinque, you can explain to me how feeling like a second-class citizen in your own country logically leads to simmering emotions and angry protests.

My first inclination is to leap to judgment against anti-social behavior that seems to set back an important cause, but after an hour on the phone with him, I came to realize that one can forcefully condemn looting AND understand that if peaceful protest doesn’t effect change it makes sense to demand attention in other ways.

He’s not wrong. I’m not wrong.

In other words, we MUST take the time to empathize with other people’s perspectives and opinions. Yes, it’s difficult for me to take the anti-vaxxer conspiracy theorists without judging them. Yes, it’s hard to sit at home when friends are inviting us out to dinner and mocking us for staying inside.

But what I’m discovering is that the only way to survive in this world is to see people with differing opinions as honest, sincere, fully-realized human beings who simply have a different agenda for how they are going to live their lives.

Maybe my agenda – from my 1% bubble of privilege – allows me to stay at home and be happy for the next two years until there’s a coronavirus vaccine. Maybe somebody else’s livelihood depends on getting back to normal ASAP because they can’t afford to remain under lockdown without their life functionally collapsing.

Instead of imposing my opinions on them (because I want to be safe, THEY need to stay at home as I do) or them imposing their opinions on me (and forcing me to go back to theaters and schools before there is any meaningful scientific progress), we can actually agree to disagree. Furthermore, we can agree to disagree without demonizing, without insulting, without drawing the worst possible opinions about good people who are also trying to navigate this terribly complicated era with a balance of safety, economic security and sanity.

This, to me, is the fundamental truth of living: while there may only be one set of facts, there are different truths that work for different people.

Those who are most effective in life are the ones who understand this and manage to work around it. Those who retreat to the “I’m right/you’re wrong” bubble only serve to alienate others – which is problematic in a world where half the people will disagree with you on any given subject.

This is the area I’ve been straddling for years as a dating and relationship coach.

Men need to understand and appreciate a woman’s struggle – with aging, with meaningless sex, with insecurity, with societal expectations, with perpetually choosing men who ghost, criticize, vacillate, cheat, disappoint, and fail to live up to their early potential. To be good partners, men need to make women feel safe, heard, and understood – offering unconditional love that allows you to thrive in a partnership. Men who don’t treat their partners this way will never be happily married.

Similarly, women need to understand what it’s like to appreciate a man’s struggle – the volume of rejection we face, the ways in which we are not encouraged to express feelings or vulnerability, how lonely we get in middle age, how we’re driven by testosterone even when it’s bad for us, how we are not given a chance if we’re too short, uneducated or make less money, and how, no matter what we do to make you happy, it never seems like it’s enough. Men want to feel accepted, appreciated, and admired. Women who don’t treat their partners this way will never be happily married.

If you’re a woman, the first paragraph rings with the joy and clarity of being understood by a man. If you’re a single man, the second paragraph validates your life experience as to why it’s been so hard to find a happy, easy, unconditionally loving relationship.

My only point is that BOTH of these paragraphs are true.

If you can only see the truth in ONE of those paragraphs, this crisis is a wonderful opportunity to empathize with people who come from a different place, have different needs, and ultimately, want to be loved just like you.

I hope you work through the struggle to find the empathy and humility to extend to people who disagree with you, whom you’ve never met, who also have to live with you in this world, long after the current crises have passed.

Warmest wishes and much love,

Your friend,

Evan

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Comments:

  1. 1
    sara colvin

    Thanks Evan! Great message delivered with authenticity as usual.

  2. 2
    Cheryl

    I love your relationship advice Evan. Very precise with a set of fundamentals that never change. Power to you. I admire how you acknowledge the fact your in a privileged position. But none the less you are in one. At some point we all have to come off “sitting on the fence”. Because at some point this might reach you. In which case you’d have to pick a side lol. As for trusting your government good luck with that one if the past is anything to go by. Bill Clinton and his massive lies comes to mind for me lol and I’m British. So I have to disagree with you on this one.You could apply the same logic to this as you do your advice you’d definitely make the correct choice.
    All the best
    Cheryl

  3. 3
    Penelope

    Thanks, Evan. What is sadly rare now is not only to hear but also to respect another point of view, and also the person who holds it.

  4. 4
    Ann

    Evan..U ROC Isn’t this the truth
    People without empathy is like a hot fudge sundae without any hot fudge something’s definitely missing we all need to think of what it would be like to be in someone else’s shoes and not judge them remember we’re all going to be judged

  5. 5
    MICHELE CHINICHIAN

    This is a really timely article for me and the first time I have commented on one. I have a lot of empathy for people who are in survival mode or who have had to make some really hard decisions. I would hate to be in a position where I have to choose between my livelihood and the health and wellbeing of myself, the community at large, my child’s education and more. I can see those perspectives and have a lot of compassion for people who find themselves in these tough spots.

    With that said, those that were also in a place of privilege like you and I, and were unnecessarily contributing to the spread during a stay-at-home order was hard to understand. Wealthy friends who were still generating a lot of income that chose to apply for the small business loans felt disheartening. Just the lack of regard for others made me feel tremendous sadness.

    Also, I use to be very tolerant of others political beliefs and could just agree to disagree, or not even go there with friends and it was fine. Now I’ve become “that person” who feels “If you vote for Trump, why are you even in my life?!”

    I’m not saying it’s good or right to feel this way, just that I have this visceral reaction that is repelling me from certain people right now and I don’t know how to get past it. I am not sure I should. I have ZERO respect for anyone that can still support or defend him (not to be confused with someone who typically votes Republican or has some of those values) and so I have been avoiding a handful of friends right now.

    This has obviously created a lot of feelings of grief and loss b/c I can’t even bring myself to talk to what has been my main circle of friends. Relationships I use to really love and value. Yet, whenever I hear what they are doing and thinking, I feel so alarmed and upset. I’m sure how to get past some of this non-understandable behavior. I’m seeing things in people I wish I could unsee.

    I’m starting to feel my avoidance/silence is part of the problem. Compassion, first seeking to understand — sure, I agree with you a 100% that this is a great first step. However, I’m not sure having empathy for unnecessary potentially harmful behavior or racist leaders is the answer. In your article, most of the examples of differences outlined seemed pretty reasonable to me (minus the anti-mask people, just don’t see the harm in wearing one even if it winds up being for nothing). When a privileged persons responds to my seeking to understand in a way that is such a clash in values and is not understandable in any way to me, I am not sure how it’s possible to navigate around that or ever get past it all together.

    1. 5.1
      Evan Marc Katz

      I hear you, Michele. I agree with the above. I think we all have to compartmentalize a bit and find a way to live and let live – because the alternative – what we have now on Facebook and rioting in the street – just isn’t a viable long-term strategy.

      1. 5.1.1
        MICHELE CHINICHIAN

        Agreed. I am definately not engaging in riots or angry dialogue on Facebook. Just avoiding people which isn’t a good solution either, and a bandaid to a larger issue that I have to eventually face.

  6. 6
    Alison

    I think this is an incredible piece of writing and I resonated with all of your thoughts. Balance, humility, empathy and understanding have to be the goal in all human relationships I(f we want to be happy). Thank you for writing this!

  7. 7
    Jeremy

    It’s so hard. A pediatrician I know likes to post on social media. She breaks down the covid situation into easy-to-understand, factual sound bites. Yesterday she tried to post something in support of the black community, and mistakenly wrote “all lives matter.” She did not know that particular hashtag had been used to negate the “black lives matter” – she really just meant it as support for their community, not antagonism. Well, the abusive comments began quickly, and actually culminated in a death threat. A death threat!

    My sister-in-law is a speech pathologist. She posts on social media. Yesterday she did not mention anything about the protests, and just posted about speech. And received complaints that she must not care about the issues because she didn’t post about them. Some of her colleagues vocally left her site, posting that she was a bigot. Because and didn’t comment to their satisfaction.

    It’s a crazy world. We have to be tolerant, but tolerance ends for people who have no tolerance of us.

  8. 8
    ceecee

    Hi Evan,

    Thanks for posting this. I have found this type of judgment happening with people in my life so I appreciate you articulating it in your post. I was curious about what you said, that your work is still in great demand? I get this during regular times, but I was thinking perhaps, during the pandemic, there may have been a downshift? I stopped dating at the start of the quarantine. I did have a FaceTime date with one man but there was no follow up. I am not inclined to date right now because of the risks involved of meeting a lot of new people. Plus, I have a family member who has an underlying health condition so it makes me even more hesitant to expand my social circle.

    I read your blog about dating in the time of Coronavirus and did think it was helpful. However, as time goes by and it appears that we will have to adhere to social distancing protocols for the foreseeable future, I feel less hopeful. I wonder how I am going to establish a serious relationship without the initial physical contact and eventual intimacy which is so natural and integral to creating a meaningful attachment.

    While I could wait for there to be vaccine or treatment or some other marker to make me feel “safer” to begin dating again, this doesn’t always feel tenable as I also have a strong need for love and companionship, and being isolated is painful. For me, it seems that entering into the dating world in the near term would mean that I am willing to take a calculated risk at some point that I may infect myself and my family. I am still struggling with this idea for myself and, to your point in the post, each person has to decide what is best for them. While I don’t have an answer yet, it is something I think about a lot.

    I appreciate your advice on dating and men. It is some of the best I have read. I suppose I maintain some semblance of hope by imagining a future (whenever that may be) when I can put it to good use.

    1. 8.1
      Evan Marc Katz

      Thanks for your comment, CeeCee. Indeed, demand for Love U is as high as its ever been. Think about it: smart, strong, successful women with six-figure incomes and nice homes who love to travel are suddenly stuck inside and have to face the fact that they are ALONE. They have time. They have money. They don’t have love. So I’ve got 50 women in my course right now who are actively dating with great success despite the pandemic. It’s pretty remarkable what one can do when she put her mind towards something important. Good luck and be safe.

  9. 9
    Carol

    Bravo!!! I want to share this EVERYWHERE!!!!

  10. 10
    Evan Marc Katz

    Aw, thanks! Please do so!

  11. 11
    Bija Bennett

    Beautifully said, Evan….and deeply worthy of reflection and action…Love, B

  12. 12
    Bbq

    Good post! So important to take the message to heart!

    Here in Australia, things aren’t as bad as in North America right now – Covid is on the ropes for now and nearly gone and there’s not quite as much division, or at least as much anger around it (tho you can sense its coming).
    In many states there are few or hanfulls of cases of Covid left and it will likely be gone (for now) soon enough and so restrictions on public gatherings are set to end in several weeks and things will go back pretty much to normal. However on the weekend, weeks before Corona is basically gone within the country after having followed restrictions so well, inspired by America, BLM protests drawing thousands happened in the major cities here. Now we will have several weeks to see how that affects the state of the virus.

    No doubt many here feel that there has been a long standing lack of respect for their point of view (and themselves) so this is warranted and that can be empatthised with. And it’s easy to see how not wanting to cause a second wave of death and disease this close to all but eradicating coronavirus within our shores can likewise be empathised with. However I feel there are many who foster a lack of empathy as a noble quality in of itself and seek to make it as difficult as possible to meet in the middle, so to speak.

    The one explanation those people could give that could be truthful is that they know that their actions may cause a second wave of the virus, and they have taken that decision not just on behalf of themselves, but of everyone, from all those at risk, to the healthy and the elderly and frail, that their cause is worth any of their lives, should they cause a second wave. Now if I could hear that, I would respect it, I may not agree that the timing was necessary or clever or agree, but I could respect it as the truth. Likewise my position would be, that noble and truthful as their cause may be, it was better to wait a month then organise rather than risk those lives.

    But in truth there has been no logical discussion over it, just emotional shutdowns and attempted “cancelling” of anyone who attempts to question “their” cause. It’s an unfourtanate fact of our times, that for the extreme political groups, empathy for anyone outside your group is not encouraged, in fact it’s sure to see you on the outside of the group too. So again and again we see logic and empathy discouraged in the face of emotion and cancel culture until appreciation for it is all but lost. It’s truly sad.

  13. 13
    Jel.

    I disagree with Evan on this, his daily life and security are not impacted at this point of time and he may agree to “to disagree “ when his life is not affected seriously – but it may always change- for example what if his wife or child need an emergency surgery and it proves dangerous because of a covid outbreak in the hospital. In such a case of “immediate threat “ – because “ fight- or-flight response” dictates one will always want to protect themself first- there is a question whether he would approve “spreading “ the corona throughout protests or in any other way. No one is sure that they may stay protected/ hidden/ unaffected over a longer period of time.
    My opinion is: put interests and benefits of the community as whole ahead of an individual or of a group of people- everyone needs to make some sacrifices in order to protect the community. I think that’s what kept Australia so well so far.
    Someone would say I don’t understand- I am a migrant who got citizenship two years ago and the full rights- before I was working in low paid occupation, was even told that my “overseas references” do not count. Someone would say I have valid reasons to join the protests- no, I disapprove anything that may hurt or cause more harm- which a pandemic very well applies to. My view is: stick to the rules until we are all over this, put the benefits of the whole society ahead of everything else.
    There is a saying in my home country, something like: it is easy be good and tolerant when everything is good, when there are difficult times, then it is visible who is the real hero.I think Australia is.

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