Humor and empathy are closely related. We start with an example that includes both. Caution: Nothing escapes debunking, including empathy. My apologies in advance about any ads associated with the video.
Both empathy and humor create and expand community. Both empathy and humor cross the boundary between self and other. Both empathy and humor relieve stress and reduce tension.
However, empathy crosses the boundary between self and other with respect, recognition, care, finesse, artistry, affinity, delicacy, appreciation, and acknowledgement, whereas humor crosses the boundary between individuals with aggression, sexuality, or a testing of community standards.
If you have to explain the joke, it is not funny – nevertheless, here goes.
The community standard made the target of satire in the SNL skit is that people are supposed to be empathic. The husband claims he wants to understand social justice issues but when given a chance to improve his understanding – drinking the empathy drink by pitched by the voice over – he resists. He pushes back. He pretends to drink, but does not even take off the bottle cap. When pressured, he even jumps out the window rather than drink the drink.
The wife does not do much better. She resists expanding her empathy too, by pretending that, as a woman, she already has all the empathy needed. Perhaps, but perhaps not. People give lip service to empathy – and social justice – but do not want to do the hard word to create a community that is empathic and works for all.
The satire surfaces our resistance to empathy, our double standard, and our tendency to be fake about doing the tough work – including a fake empathy drink. If only it were so easy!
Therefore, be careful. Caution! The mechanism of humor presents sex or aggression in such a way that it creates tension by violating social standards, morals, or conventions. This occurs to a degree that causes stress in the listener just short of eliciting a counter-aggression against the teller of the story or joke. Then the “punch line” relieves the tension all at once in a laugh.
Another sample joke? This one is totally non controversial, so enables one to appreciate the structure of the joke.
A man is driving a truck in the back of which are a group of penguins. The man gets stopped for speeding by a police officer. Upon consideration, the officer says: “I will let you off with a warning this time, but be sure to take those penguins to the zoo.” The next day the same man is driving the same truck with the exact same penguins. Only this time, the penguins are wearing sunglasses. The same police officer pulls the driver over again and says: “I thought I told you to take those penguins to the zoo!” The man replies: “I did. Yesterday we went to the zoo. Today we are going to the beach!” Pause for laugh.
The point is that humor, among many things, is a way in which one speaks truth to power—and gets away with it. In this case, one disobeys the police officer. One is technically in the wrong, though vindicated. Penguins in sunglasses are funny. More specifically, the mechanism of the joke is the ambiguous meaning of “takes someone to the zoo.” One can go to the zoo as a visitor to look at the animals or one can be incarcerated there, as are the animals on display.
Instead of a breakdown in relating such as “you are under arrest!” the relationship is enhanced. The driver is following the officer’s guidance after all, granted the interpretation was ambiguous.
You get a good laugh—and a vicarious trip to the beach added to the bargain. Empathy is the foundation of community in a deep way, for without empathy we would be unable to relate to other people. Humor and jokes also create a community between the audience and storyteller as the tension is dispelled in the laughter (see also Ted Cohen on Joking Matters (1999)).
The story creates a kind of verbal optical illusion, a verbal ambiguity that gets expressed in laughter. In empathy perhaps one gets a vicarious hand shake, hug, “high five,” pat on the back, or tissue to dry a tear, expressing itself in recognition of our related humanity, while affirming and validating the self-other distinction.
Featured image of laughing carrousel horses (c) Alex Zonis
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project
Empathy is about relationships. Architecture is about building things that last. Building lasting relationships? A marriage made in heaven?
When you are building something – whether a bridge, house, or a relationship – the challenge is to get the fundamentals just right. The foundation is what connects the structure to the earth. This is the case especially with bridges that span vast chasms.
The architect building a structure knows that the structure has to go down to bedrock. You have to go down to what is stable and abides or the structure can be magnificent, beautiful, and elegant; but it will crack, lean over like the leaning Tower of Pisa, and then fall over due to design flaws. Or like the Tacoma Narrows bridge, it will start resonating in the wind and tear itself loos from its foundation and collapse. [Granted, the Leaning Tower was “fixed” by those ingenious Japanese engineers who hollowed out a space on the higher side enabling the Tower to “fall up.”]
Therefore, to explore the bedrock for the structure of empathy we have to ask what is bedrock in human relations? But wait. I thought the foundation of human relations was – empathy. The bedrock is empathy.
But what is the bedrock of the bedrock? On what is empathy itself founded? How do we get access to the foundation of the foundation? Isn’t the foundation just the foundation? Not exactly. Read on.
The way to get access to the question of what is the foundation of the foundation is to ask what can go wrong. Imagine empathy was a bicycle – it can get a flat tire, the handle bars can fall off, the chain can break, or the rim can get bent, and so on. A square wheel won’t roll. In each case, something is missing – wholeness. The bike as a bike is incomplete and, therefore, does not work.
Likewise with empathy. Empathy can break down. When we engage with the break downs, we get access to the foundation.
Empathy can break down as emotional contagion, conformity, projection, or get lost in translation. In each case, something is missing – wholeness.
The foundation of the foundation is integrity. The Roman Stoic politician and philosopher Cicero defined “insanity” (insanitas) as lack of wholeness, incompleteness, or being fragmented (see Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations a Roman “psychiatry”). Here “integrity” is not meant in the narrow ethical sense of right/wrong, but rather “integrity” in the sense of being authentic. In the case of empathy integrity means being present with the other person without anything else added or missing.
Therefore, the foundation of empathy is working on one’s own integrity and authenticity in being related. Without such a foundation, one is building on a mud pie.
You know how when things go wrong, the tendency is to find someone to blame and point the finger in someone’s direction? The word “responsibility” can hardly be uttered and our listening is “bad and wrong” and “who’s to blame,” you know? You did it! He did it! She did it! Now in the course of this work on empathy that finger has a tendency to change direction – and it points to oneself.
“I say I am committed to keeping my agreements but I am actually committed to not rocking boat” “I say I am committed to freedom of expression but I am in fact actually committed to being liked, being popular.” “I say that I am generous in my relationships but I am actually attached to holding onto grudges and grievances.” “I say that I am committed to being faithful in my relationship but the only reason I am faithful is that in fact I lack opportunity to betray my partner.” “I say I am honest but cut corners and cheat on my business expenses or taxes.” “I say that I am committed to telling the truth but I am actually committed to looking good.” You can provide examples of your own. This list goes on.
Therefore, clean up your own messes first. I have to work on myself – and you, dear reader, have to work on yourself – and we have to clean up our own acts prior to taking the empathy game to the street and coaching others.
The foundation is cleaning up one’s own integrity outages. Acknowledging the cost and impact and, where possible, making restitution and repair. The ultimate path to authenticity is cleaning up one’s inauthenticities.
Because a bridge falls down does not mean that bridge building is a failed science; because a tower leans over does not mean that the physics of building towers is in error. It means human beings on occasion misapply the practices of bridge building and tower making. Likewise with the practice of empathy. It’s the practice that counts.
Without consistent, enduring practice, the results you get will be a roll of the dice; and getting lucky is not a viable plan when anything important is at stake. That is the bad news and also the good news in expanding empathy in the individual and the community. It’s all about the practice.
Three recommendations: practice, practice, practice – and be sure to get a second opinion – a coach – to provide feedback on your practice (so the bridge doesn’t fall down!),
So, back to the architectural metaphor: a lot of site preparation is needed. The structure is multi-unit and multi-person. The site of empathy includes receptivity of the other’s feelings, understanding of the other as a possibility, talking a walk in the other’s shoes (the folk definition of empathy), and translating the other’s experience into one’s own and vice versa. Heating and cooling include emotional regulation and distress tolerance shows up as weather proofing and lightening rods.
From another point of view, empathy is not a standalone structure. It is a bridge connecting individuals and communities. It is a bridge over troubled waters on a stormy day and a source of satisfying relatedness on a sunny one.
Okay, I have read enough I want to get the book, Empathy: A Lazy Person’s Guide, a light-hearted look at empathy, containing some two dozen illustrations by artist Alex Zonis and including the one minute empathy training plus numerous tips and techniques for taking your empathy to the next level: click here (https://tinyurl.com/y8mof57f)
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD, and the Chicago Empathy Project