…….is Love Sweet Love”? Close, but not quite according to physicist supergenius Stephen Hawking this week.
In an interview with California student Adaeze Uyanwah, she asked him what human trait would he most like to change. He answered: human aggression. He explained that early mankind needed aggression for the species to survive: to hunt for food, to establish secure territories, even to ensure mating for procreation. Today, that aggression that was once important for survival is the very thing that may destroy humankind because there is so much firepower out there…..nuclear weapons for instance. The last thing the world needs is someone aggressive hovering over the nuclear weapon button who will destroy us all.
So the solution? Hawking would like to see aggression turned into empathy. He says that empathy ” brings us together in a peaceful, loving state”. He say it leads to kindness, understanding and the necessary co-operation to exist together.
These remarks caught my attention as I have been in a couple of discussions about whether or not empathy can be taught and learned or if it is hardwired (or not) in people. Empathy, perhaps to oversimplify, is the ability to understand what it is like to be in “someone else’s shoes”.
We tend to see the world as we are, not as it really is. Often, the best and worst of what we see in others is merely a projection of the best and the worst that is within us, so we are not particularly predisposed to empathy. Some people though, seem to have a talent for understanding others, and can quickly identify unique abilities or needs in someone else that is quite unlike anything about themselves. Can this talent be developed?
Yes, surely we can all become more empathetic. The question is: how do we do that? I’ve read a number of articles on this and most of the articles focus on how to “practice” empathy, but not so much on how to “be” empathetic.
So here is what I came up with for ideas I’m learning on how to “be” empathetic and how to “practice” empathy.
To become empathetic is to embrace these principles:
1. Recognition that all human beings have a value equal to your own.
2. That you can learn something good from literally everyone.
3. That all relationships whether social, professional, business etc. can and should be win-win.
4. That you will gain satisfaction in life as much or more by giving than by getting.
5. That improving someone else’s life is as high or a higher calling than self-improvement.
6. Recognize that not everyone sees things the same way as you. In fact, probably nobody does.
7. Acknowledge that differences and diversities between people should usually be understood and celebrated.
To Practice Empathy:
1. Listen carefully and try to understand others from their perspective, not yours.
2. Don’t make assumptions about others, find out where they are really coming from.
3. Be curious about others, ask questions, lots of them and you will understand them and discover a beauty that may be disguised by their pain.
4. Don’t merely wonder “what would it be like if I was in their shoes?”, but wonder “what is it really like for them in their shoes?” The latter requires much more information and imagination.
5. Hold judgment. This takes a lot of practice.
6. Offer help and do what you can (without being taken advantage of)
I think Hawking himself is a living example of social progress where aggression is turning toward empathy. The aggression that effectively killed mathematical genius Alan Turing in the 1950’s in his early 40’s due to his homosexuality and robbed the world of the benefit of his genius, has turned to empathy for Hawking’s physical disabilities and preserved his genius to his current age of 73.
As the world gets smaller and smaller, we are going to need more empathy to understand other cultures and religions that differ from ours, but deserve equal respect. Aggression isn’t the answer on a personal level or on a grander scale, empathy is.