We are living in an increasingly complex and divided country. The rich don’t understand the poor, the poor don’t understand the rich, urbanites don’t understand rural people, and rural people are, as I have come to believe, too busy humping their Bibles inside a giant, gun-shaped barbecue palace to understand anything at all.
But there is a way to overcome these divisions, to salve the wounds caused by anger and distrust. And that is through empathy. Take it from me. I have more empathy than my dumb neighbor, truly idiotic boss, and possibly brain damaged brother-in-law combined. I understand them. And because I understand them, I am able to respect them.
When you have empathy, you realize that there’s a reason people act the way they do. The person who cut you off in traffic? He’s rushing his pregnant wife to the hospital. The woman who never texted you back after your first date? She was so impressed by your magic demonstration that she clammed up and left the state. The person who said you can’t enter this Bojangles location unless you put on a shirt and stop throwing jellybeans through the drive-thru window? She just found out her stuntman father has died on the set of Atlantis IV: Cyborg Whales. So don’t get mad at her — comfort her, with jellybeans.
I often address large school groups, uninvited, before being dragged offstage by security, and what I tell our country’s students is that empathy helps us deal with bullying. Bullies aren’t reacting to you; usually they’re reacting to personal trauma that has nothing to do with you. That’s why, whenever a bully is mean to me, I never get angry or upset with him. Instead I just laugh, because he’s probably experiencing something extremely unfortunate in his personal life.
We can all learn from that.
Empathy doesn’t only change individual lives, though. It changes societies. After all, if we had more empathy, would Donald Trump really have become President? Wouldn’t someone more compassionate and respectful have won instead, like Hillary Clinton? I’m not saying it’s definitely one way or other. I can’t predict the future. But it’s worth thinking about while shaking and crying.
Keep in mind that empathy isn’t a one-way street. It’s not just about you trying to understand other people who are so backward and inarticulate it’s impossible to keep straight what they’re talking about. It’s also about you opening up yourself to those people. Being vulnerable. So don’t be afraid of sharing your views and how you came to them, even if you fear they won’t be well received. Even if you fear for your personal safety because you heard that un-empathetic people are prone to shooting fire ants at their adversaries from a hidden compartment in their Bible pouch. As long as you’ve attended a half-dozen classes of my violence de-escalation seminar, Peace Through Athletics a.k.a. The Boxing Method, you can prevent their aggression before it starts.
Believe it or not, I used to not have empathy. When my brother-in-law came to visit and told me, “I read your novel manuscript, Visions of Steve. And I have some concerns,” I used to get mad. I used to tell him that his stupidity is the reason the government doesn’t let us have tigers as pets or commute in jet packs. No longer, now that I have empathy. Now I go into my room, write my brother-in-law’s name on a pillow, punch the pillow, throw the pillow at my knife collection, and then exit my room and tell him, “I believe your concerns are valid, and I’m ready to work with you to fix this.”
At this point, you’re probably wondering if there’s anything empathy can’t do. And it’s true: empathy changes individual lives. Empathy changes societies. Empathy allows us to understand people different from us, and because we understand them, to manipulate them by appealing to their fear and resentment. But there are limits. You can’t have empathy with an animal. You can’t have empathy in a crowded supermarket. And you should never have empathy while people are suffering — only after they have enabled a catastrophe.