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Top 10 Empathy Trends for 2021

“The Year 2020 in review: One Star – definitely would not recommend!” Good things to say about 2020? As Dave Barry quipped, nobody got killed by the murder hornets. Many of my empathy trends for 2020, prepared in December 2019, were blown up on the launch pad by February 2020 as the pandemic accelerated. “Empathy interrupted!”  I acknowledge that I did not see it coming.

The year 2020 was not an ordinary year in any sense. Obviously. The really tough thought gradually dawns on us: “Ordinary” will never  mean the same thing again in quite the same way.

The fundamental meta-trend of trends is to process that there is no going back to the way things were in exactly the way they were in December 2019. 

I ask your understanding, dear reader, in that the pandemic features prominently in the first few trends, but since this is in the nature of a top ten list and the pandemic touches almost everything indirectly, significant trends stronger than the immediate pandemic issues get pushed towards the bottom of the list leading up to #1. So feel free to scan and skip ahead. 

(10) It’s gettin’ crowded under the bus – make room for your neighbor. Empathy as a practice and as a distinction is knocked back on its heels by the pandemic, fights back, and recovers – gradually. We confront the paradox of “embracing” our socially distanced neighbor. There is something about humans that makes us want to breathe on one another. Empathy? Don’t try and hold your breath – even though expanding neighborliness is the ultimate empathy trend. 

Any trends, activities, practices that required getting close to another person physically were under stress if not banned in 2020: breaking bread together in person, hugging your grandma or neighbor, hug therapy [there actually was such a thing – before the pandemic], shaking hand(s) with someone you can’t stand [as Tom Lehrer quipped in his satirical song “National Brotherhood Week”], engaging with the kindness of strangers, dating, occupying the middle seat (or any seat?) on an airplane or bus, participating in person in artistic or sporting activities, in short, breathing with people in close quarters, sharing oxygen with them. All these and more were unceremoniously thrown under the bus in 2020 by the requirement for social distancing. The thing is – it’s getting crowded under the bus. 

Any action, behavior, or practice that takes into account the dignity or well-being of the other person or community expands and empowers empathy. A silver lining: empathy is already “action at a distance,” as I know the experience of the other person because I too experience the experience.

Empathy trends for 2021: how long can you hold your breath?

Empathy in the age of Covid-19 really does mean wearing a mask, practicing social distancing, getting the vaccine (subject to availability). To quote Noah Lindquist: “Wear a mask – think of someone other than yourself, it’s all we ask – get your head out of your [bleep] – no, the mandates aren’t malicious; your conspiracies are fictitious; try not to be so grouchy have some faith in Fauci!” – to be sung to the tune of Disney’s “Be my guest” from The Beauty and the Beast. The part about “thinking of someone other than yourself” is the cognitive empathy moment, which is especially challenging in the face of pandemic fatigue. 

The New York Times (https://tinyurl.com/y9tczw8c) points out that, as President Trump’s trade war with China escalated, the administration all but eliminated the public health partnership with Beijing that had begun after the debacle of the SARS epidemic and was intended to help prevent potential pandemics. 

By pulling out, current and former agency officials say, Washington cut itself off from potential intelligence about the virus, and lost an opportunity to work with China against it. President Trump is voted out of office, while Mr Chairman Xi of China is handing out bonuses and deciding which scientists stay under house arrest.

As my friend David Cole astutely observed, “If you live mostly by yourself in the country, you can afford think about yourself a lot; if you live in the big city, you are forced to think about others.” He did not say “presumably because some of the others might be muggers,” but maybe he didn’t have to. Granted that thinking about others is top down, cognitive empathy, not the full package, still it provides useful training in perspective taking of different points of view and walking in the shoes of others, even if the others can be decidedly un-neighborly.

In terms of creating and expanding inclusive communities, the pandemic has been a significant set back. Empathy is all about being inclusive – take your in-group and reach out to outsiders and include them. The pandemic has made doing that problematic. It is hard to distinguish between being inclusive and a super spreader event such as we in the USA saw over the summer of 2020 with the ten day Sturgis motor cycle rally, which reportedly spread contagion across the upper Midwest. The recommendation is review Robert Pirsig’s influential  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance prior to the next event.

 (9) Empathy continues to expand its political footprint. Empathy inhabits politics, even when empathy is conspicuous by its absence. Regardless of what one thinks of the individual candidates or economic platforms, the messaging of decency and cooperation reliably gets more votes than bullying and chest thumping. 

The bridge between the political present and a seemingly impossible-to-imagine future is empathy. The empathic moment is an act of imagination. That is the engaging thing about empathy. It may seem like a dream; but the dream lives. It is inclusive. It is consistent with social distancing. Nor does it require agreement. 

Different viewpoints are available with regard to anyone’s action, including that of the one with whom one is least likely to agree. This is not the narrow psychological mechanism of empathy in which one simply reverses perspective with another person. Political engagement is the  attempt to take on the multiplicity of standpoints represented in a given community. Historical empathy is trending, too (see Kohut 2020). 

The greater variety of perspectives that one has present in one’s mind on the present and past while one is engaging a given issue, and the better one can imagine how one would think and feel if one were in their place. This brief note to point to more discussion in the coming year. 

The politics of rage are abroad in the land. When people are spoken to using ethnic or racial insults, they get enraged. When people feel their values and commitments are not respected, they are aggrieved – and they get enraged. Dignity violations are experienced as breakdowns of empathy – and that causes people to get angry; and the anger often escalates into rage. It gets worse – and more ambiguous.

Demagogues tell their constituents that other groups do not respect them, are out to get them. Demagogues take advantage of people’s sometimes legitimate grievances. The result is that the rage is displaced onto those groups. This becomes especially problematic when the dignity violation is imaginary such as a non-existent Pizzagate Conspiracy. 

The emotional contagion that precedes mob action is a demonstrable breakdown of empathic receptivity. The communicability of negative emotions such as fear, anger, and panic are aroused and the humanity of one’s neighbors is denied. The comparison of the intended victims to insects is a distressing symptom of the denial of empathy, followed by dehumanization, followed by violence. 

The first step in eliminating any natural inhibitions on violence is to deny empathy to the intended victims that accompanies their humanity. Wherever one’s opponent is described in devaluing and dehumanizing language, the red flag is out. Get ready for human rights violations. 

Once called forth, rage can be channeled in a number of different directions. If it is channeled into burning down one’s own neighborhood, that is the self-defeating response to breakdowns in empathy. If it is channeled into a lynch mob, it is an appalling human rights violation that must rally people everywhere to the cause of justice. If it is channeled into righteous indignation and civil disobedience, that is an approach with potentially better outcomes. 

The empathy lesson? An empathic response on the part of the authorities will deescalate the rage and interrupt the potential for violence. People in the community use their empathy as a way of data gathering to determine if the authorities initial empathic responsiveness is the real deal or just more propaganda. 

(8) “USPS, yes!” from a song by The Bobs entitled “Drive by Love.” Add logistics and supply chain genius to the list of “unsung heroics” of empathy. It takes something to “get” that on-time delivery is actually a form of empathic responsiveness. 

Neither rain nor sleet nor snow nor dead of night – nor pandemic – stopped the US Post Office from delivering the mail – which included many mail-in ballots. Hats off to the unsung heroes – there are so many of them – in this case, the logistical accomplishments of forwarding the US mail. What happened once the mail got there is – predictably – more politics. 

Yes, of course, the nurses and doctors and first responders are eminently worthy of our recognition. Of course they are heroes – heroes of restoring health and well-being, cheating death, and survival, even as we also acknowledge that the need for so many heroes is a troubling sign that significant social systems are in breakdown. So do not forget to add to the list the unsung heroes of the solution to the pandemic – the supply chain men and women – the logistics guys. I do not just mean the actual delivery folks driving the trucks as in the song “UPS, yes!” I mean the logistics required to distribute two shots of the first approved vaccine at – what? – 90 degrees below Fahrenheit. No trivial accomplishment.

(7) Empathy is distinguished from simulated empathy (again). People will continue to try to listen to one another, and, by practicing listening, will make progress in distinguishing simulated (“fake”) empathy from empathy – gradually. The matter is complex – and troubling.

Social networking platforms (e.g., Facebook in its current form (Q1 2021)) are unmasked as the ultimate training ground for simulated empathy, a synonym for fake empathy and un-listening. 

In the section late in Shoshana Zuboff’s book (The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (Hachette Press)) on “Homing to the Herd,” Zuboff writes: 

“[Facebook’s] operations are designed to exploit the human inclination toward empathy, belonging, and acceptance. The system tunes the pitch of our behavior with the rewards and punishments of social pressure, herding the human heart toward confluence as a means to other’s commercial ends.” 

I would spit hairs and say, “simulated empathy.” However, the basic point is valid. The user ends up “over sharing” personal information in a kind of tranquilized state of semi-hypnotic psychic numbing similar to that induced in gambling casinos by blinking lights and bells. On FB, you are not the customer – you are the product. 

As bad as that may be, it gets worse. The damage to one’s humanity is already done when one’s personal experience is treated as raw material for the surveillance capital’s revenue model. Facebook and Google users – you and me – are not customers; we are the raw material. The customers are the advertisers, corporations with services and goods, whose selling requires a guaranteed outcome. Machine intelligence operating on big data at hyper-scale has within view behavioral modification the results of which B. F. Skinner, wizard of operant conditioning, can only have dreamed. You do not so much search Google as Google searches you. With that in mind, the next up trend is –

(6) Big brother is overtaken by Big Other without, however, decisively expanding empathy. Empathy scores [some] points against Big Other’s fake news, alternative facts, dangerous half truths, total nonsense, and simulated empathy, but the back-and-forth continues. 

The opponent is no longer “Big Brother” (as in Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984) but “Big Other” (first identified by S. Zuboff in her book (The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (Hachette Press)). Millions of Americans and their representatives in the US Congress subscribe to the fake news promoted by Big Other that the 2020 election was “rigged”; but millions more reject alternative acts, dangerous half truths and total nonsense. 

While fake news is perhaps as old as the Trojan horse in Homer’s Iliadand the warning about Greeks bearing gifts, social networking takes the risks and damage to a new level. Fake news aligns in detail with surveillance capitalism (see Zuboff cited above), because fake news maximizes social conflict, controversy, and most importantly – clicks.

Big Other is itself a Trojan horse appearing to be free search and free digital services. However, without advance in listening skills – i.e., the “free-ness” is illusory. It is more like the first settlers handing out blankets that were used to swaddle small pox patients to the indigenous peoples.

Just as the science of physics and engineering enabled industrial capitalism to master nature, a vision of socialphysics (Alex Pentland’s book of the same name features prominently) is being implemented in big data and machine intelligence to implement behavior modification. Thus Zuboff: “Social media is designed to engage and hold people of all ages, but it is principally molded to the psychological structure of adolescence and emerging adulthood, when one is naturally oriented toward the ‘others,’ especially toward the rewards of group recognition, acceptance, belonging, and inclusion.”

Big Other can mimic empathy, all the while capturing and aggregating the responses such that the predictive modeling can suggest targeted advertisements. Freedom of speech and self-expression continue to flourish. No one is listening.

As noted, social media provide the appearance of connectedness and intimacy – a simulated empathy – while actually perpetrating the equivalent of gossip, social climbing, narcissistic self promotion, and out-and-out deception. Ultimately the idea is to get you to engage in a transaction to buy, use, and consume Big Other’s product or service.

The proper function of education is to promote training in perspective taking (empathy), critical thinking, argumentation, distinguishing fact and fiction, assessing the reliability of reportage in the media, assumption questioning, and how to quote facts in context. These get traction in 2021 and play an expanded role in the school curriculum(s), even as in-person learning makes an all-too-slow comeback. 

(6a) True Believers (TB) are moved by empathy, not the facts, to abandon their illusion(s). The illusion/delusion holds the personality together; sp it is impervious to facts or arguments. Try some empathy? The story that one tells to other people is nothing in comparison with the story that one tells oneself. (Here “story” equals “belief system” or even “fiction.”)

You know the TB as the one who Doubles Down on his illusion when things do not go his way. Key term: Double Down. For example, when the space ship does not arrive from Alpha Centauri to take the TBs to the promised land (or your candidate does not win the election), does the TB inquire: Maybe I was mistaken about some of my facts? Maybe I made a wrong assumption? Or perhaps my messaging was a tad off? No! The TB doubles down. “We musta bin cheated!” “We was robbed!” 

No marshaling of facts, no amount of logical argument, whether overwhelming or debatable, makes a difference. It does no good – it makes no difference – to take the belief system away from the True Believer. The True Believer is not engaging any alternative point of view. Why not?

The answer is direct: the story, belief system, or ficiton is what is holding the True Believer’s self, his or her personality, together. Take away the belief system and the personality falls apart. The person experiences emotional fragmentation, anxiety, and stress. This is why the True Believer becomes angry, starts to shout, escalates to rage in the face of countervailing arguments and facts. The TB experiences a narcissistic injury that threatens the coherence of the TB’s personality. 

The secret of empathic relating to the True Believer is not agreeing or disagreeing, undercutting or sidestepping, antidepressants or antipsychotics, the secret is the relationship the empath has to his own inner True Believer. If you can find an area in which you really are a True Believer, then it is likely you can relate to a True Believer in a conversation for possibility in which both individuals are left in integrity, whole and complete. It does sometimes happen that when the True Believer gets the empathy he or she needs to feel whole and complete, the TB is able to “stand down,” “back away from the ledge,” and rejoin the diverse space of acceptance and tolerance of multiple points of view. It happens, but it takes a lot of work. 

(5) Empathy goes online – and stays there. This is one of the few trends from 2020 that were on target – and the trend continues. Here “empathy” refers to the gracious and generous listening that occurs in therapeutic counseling, behavioral health, life coaching, and empathy consulting, to individuals and organizations.

In particular, while nothing can substitute for an in-person conversation for possibility to shift out of emotional stuck-ness, after two people get to know one another, an online conversation is a good option in case of relocation, bad weather, unpredictable scheduling dynamics – or an especially infectious pandemic. The genie of online therapeutic conversations is out of the bottle, and not going back in. 

Psychotherapy invokes a virtual reality all of its own – even without cyber space. This is especially the case with dynamic psychotherapy that activates forms of transference in which one relates to the therapist “as if” in conversation with a past or future person or reality, the latter not physical present. Indeed, with the exception of being careful not to step in front of a bus while crossing the street on the way to therapy, we are usually over-confident that we know the reality of how our relationships work or what people mean by their communications 

Think about it: Those who complain about the lack of reality in a conversation over Zoom may usefully consider the amount of fiction and fantasy in any psychodynamic conversation, full stop. Never was it truer that meaning – and emotions such as fear – are generated in the mind of the beholder.

(Note: This trend is in part an excerpt from: Lou Agosta’s article “Empathy in Cyberspace: The Genie is Out of the Bottle” in Theory and Practice of Online Therapy: Internet-delivered Interventions for Individuals, Groups, Families, and Organizations edited by Haim Weinberg and Arnon Rolnick. London and New York: Routledge: To learn more about the complete book, click here: Theory and Practice of Online Therapy [https://tinyurl.com/yyyp84zc])

(4) Empathy in law enforcement. The police struggle with policing themselves – succeeding in many cases, failing dramatically in others – and, as a result, we all struggle. I acknowledge the dedication, commitment, and hard work of first responders. And yet the police [need to] do a better job of policing themselves. Expanded empathy training gets traction.

The trend to train the police in empathy to deescalate potentially violent situations continues to get traction – and is making a positive difference in many communities – but the list of people of color that end up dead after an encounter with the local constabulary also continues to grow. Disturbing – verrry disturbing. More progress is needed. 

This is definitely a “hot button” issue. A coherent position is hard to find amid the shouting. I am a radical moderate. I am an extreme centrist. If my house is being burglarized or on fire, I am definitely not  going to call a hippie. Heck, a couple already live there [okay, a bad joke].

However, the trend is to promote accountability – and prevent defending – I almost said “defunding” – and in the case(s) of a few “bad apples” by eliminating organizational obstacles. It lacks credibility that a police union would never  expel one of its members for violating the human rights of a citizen according to the union’s own code of police conduct. The union has a code of conduct that aligns with promoting human rights, right? I acknowledge: The problem is that one person’s bad apple is another’s dedicated professional. However, when unarmed civilians end up taking bullets fired by the police, I assert that we can all tell the difference. 

This is not primarily a public relations problem – it is a human rights one. The police struggle to police themselves, and so, absent expanded empathy in the community with the community for the community, we all struggle.

Communities will benefit from expanded empathy on the part of the law enforcement. However, there is another reason that indicates this trend has traction. The public does not always hear about the multi-million dollar financial settlements that municipalities are required to pay for wrongful death or excessive use of force, because these agreements come with rigorous confidentiality clauses. 

Police who lack training turn out to be extraordinarily expensive to the taxpayers. In this context, “lack of training” does not mean insufficient time taking target practice. It means the need for practice in putting oneself in the other person’s shoes and considering possibilities for conflict resolution, de-escalation, and community building. In short, empathy is an important part of the gear deployed by law enforcement as the warrior cop, who will still be needed in extreme situations, gives way to community policing. Really, is there any other kind?

(3) Expanded empathy in the struggle against domestic violence. Men will find their voice and speak out even more loudly and provide leadership against domestic violence to those of their own gender who just do not get it. Victims and survivors of intimate partner violence face expanded risks if they have to “shelter in place” in the pandemic with the perpetrator(s). 

This is grim – beyond grim. Once again, this is not new news but has been just beneath the surface and underreported because it is so confronting. While women have provided the leadership and will continue to do so, powerful men will step up and provide guidance to their fellow about proper boundaries and respect for them in relationships. This is ongoing. What is new: powerful men step up and speak out and provide leadership among men in establishing respect for boundaries in creating communication, affection, and affinity.

For data- and empathy-based innovations that have occurred in the past year in the fight against domestic violence see No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us, New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019. Some sixty percent of domestic violence (DV) victims are strangled at some point during an abusive relationship (p. 65): Big red flag that the perpetrator is escalating in the direction of homicide/Femicide. 

Turns out that only some 15% of the victims in one study had injuries visible enough to photograph for the police report (p. 66). Most strangulation injuries are internal – hence, the title. Good news/bad news: The Fatality Review Board is an idea that is getting attention with law enforcement and the local states attorney function. More progress and action is needed in this area. 

(2) A rumor of empathy in Big Pharma. The rumor is validated. After the debunking of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) completed by Chris Lane (2007) and the disappointing DSM 5th edition (2013), Big Pharma has a real opportunity to redeem itself in the eyes of the community. There is probably no other group of organizations on the planet that can do it. A crash project. High risk. Utterly urgent. The Covid-19 vaccine gets into people’s arms. Vaccine deniers say: “Oh, how I wish I were already experiencing the minor side effects of the shot!”

No, not a new psychotropic intervention for shyness, social anxiety, or hording. A vaccine(s) against Covid-19. The stakes are high, and it actually required [procedural] innovations at the FDA, CDC, and the US Congress (a high bar indeed) to enable treatments to be trialed without the usual ten-year plus long protocols (which are usually appropriate but not in this case). Fingers crossed (as of this writing 12/2020). Seems to be working – albeit gradually. Here me say it again (tongue in cheek): Don’t be so grouchy; have faith in Fauci! We are all most beholden’.

(2a) Empathy intersects with the struggle over climate change. It is a common place that empathy is oxygen for soul. If the human psyche does not get empathy, it suffocates in stress and suffering. Climate change makes the metaphor actual. If we do not drown as the Greenland and Antarctic ice fields slide en masse into the oceans, we are surely doomed to suffocate as the levels of carbon dioxide and heat overwhelm temperate habitats. 

The problem is that this eventuality does not live like an actual possibility for most people, who cannot imagine such an outcome – for example, just as in December 2019 no one could envision the 2020 pandemic. The bridge between the gridlocked present and a seemingly impossible-to-imagine future is empathy. The empathic moment is an act of imagination. That is the interesting thing about empathy. It may seem like a dream; but the dream lives. It is inclusive. Lots more work needs to be on this connection. For purposes of this list of tasks, this “shout out” will have to suffice. For specific actionable recommendations, see David Attenborough’s A Life on Our Planet, now streaming on Netflix: https://www.netflix.com/title/80216393

(1) Remove the obstacles to empathy such as cynicism and bullying—and empathy comes forth. Remove the resistances to empathy and empathy naturally and spontaneously expands. Most people are naturally empathic and they an expanding appreciation of empathy suffuses the community. 

The one-minute empathy training is trending: Eliminate the obstacles to empathy and a space of acceptance and toleration spontaneously emerges.

Most people do not sufficiently appreciate this: people are born with a deep and natural capacity for empathy, but they are also born needing to learn manners, respect for boundaries, and toilet training. Put the mess in the designated place or the community suffers from diseases. People also need to learn how to read and do arithmetic and communicate in writing. But there is a genuine sense in which learning to conform and follow all the rules does not  expand our empathy or our community. It does not help the cause of expanded empathy that rule-making and the drumbeat of compliance are growing by leaps and bounds.

The work at hand? Remove the blocks to empathy such as dignity violations, devaluing language, gossip, shame, guilt, egocentrism, over-identification, lack of integrity, inauthenticity, hypocrisy, making excuses, finger pointing, jealousy, envy, put downs, being righteous, stress, burnout, compassion fatigue, cynicism, censorship, denial, manipulation, competing to be the biggest victim, insults, injuries to self-esteem, and narcissistic merger—and empathy spontaneously expands, develops, and blossoms. Now that is going to require some work!

Teaching empathy consists in overcoming the obstacles to empathy that people have acquired. When the barriers are overcome, then empathy spontaneously develops, grows, comes forth, and expands. There is no catch, no “gotcha.” That is the one-minute empathy training, pure-and-simple. 

Selected Bibliography

Shoshana Zuboff, 2019, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight For the Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. New York: Public Affairs (Hachette).

Tom Kohut. (2020). Empathy and the Historical Understanding of the Human Past. London: Routledge (T&F). 

Louise Snyder. (2019). No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us, New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019.

Lou Agosta. (2012). A Rumor of Empathy at Apna Ghar, the Videohttps://tinyurl.com/y4yolree [on camera interview with Serena Low, former executive director of Apna Ghar about the struggle against DV] 

Lou Agosta. (2015). Chapter Four: Treatment of Domestic Violence in A Rumor of Empathy: Resistance, Narrative and Recovery in Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. London: Routledge.

Lou Agosta and Alex Zonis (Illustrator). (2020). Empathy: A Lazy Person’s Guide. Chicago: Two Pairs Press.

Okay – have read enough and want to order the book Empathy Lessons to learn more about expanding my empathy: I want to order the book HERE.

© Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

Empathy and the True Believer

Empathy is going to do what it always reliably does: listen. So when empathy encounters the True Believer, empathy is going provide a gracious listening. 

As empathic listeners, we start with an extreme case. We are listening to a narrative about how the space ship was supposed to arrive from Alpha Centauri to take the members of the group (or cult) to the Promised Land; but it did not arrive. As empathic listeners, we find ourselves listening to a narrative about how an election was stolen. However, so far, the recounts fail to surface the theft. We are listening to a narrative of how some racial or ethnic minority stabbed the nation of citizens in the back; but the supposed perpetrators are noticeably without power or influence consistent with such an action or result. We are listening to a discourse about how prayer makes us whole and faith fulfills our aspirations; but we experience prayers as unanswered (as if no one was listening) and faith as indistinguishable from the outcome of our own persistent efforts in a probabilistic universe of random events. 

It does no good – it makes no difference – to take the belief system away from the True Believer. No marshaling of facts, no amount of logical argument, whether overwhelming or debatable, makes a difference. The True Believer is not engaging  any alternative point of view. Why not? 

The answer is direct: the belief system is what is holding the True Believer’s self, his or her personality, together. Take away the belief system and the personality falls apart. The person experiences emotional fragmentation, anxiety, and stress. This is why the True Believer becomes angry, starts to shout, escalates to rage in the face of countervailing arguments and facts. He experiences a narcissistic injury that threatens the coherence of his personality. 

The work of empathy in the face of the True Believer consists in standing for an inquiry into one’s belief systems. If empathy is a belief system, then we inquire into that system too. Such a belief system – if we may tentatively call it that – opens out into a space of acceptance and tolerance. It is a belief system which is skeptical about belief systems. It is a belief system committed to inquiry. Key term: inquiry. Never stop questioning. Never stop listening. 

Empathy creates a commitment to acceptance, toleration, and the ability to walk in the other person’s shoes. The True Believer is committed to a belief system, conformity, and marching together in step. 

Since it would require an entire book to define The True Believer, I will just give a definition by example. It is a high probability you are dealing with a True Believer when, in the face of a setback to the Belief System (whether religion, political party, social movement, or spiritual cause) the adherent to the cause Doubles Down. Key term: double down. 

For example, the end of the world does not arrive on the predicted date as predicted by the leader, the prophet, and the belief system. The space ship does not arrive from Alpha Centauri to take the True Believers to the promised land. You know the authentic True Believer when he experiences a set back to the movement, cause, and belief system to which he is devoted. Do the adherents of the belief system say: Oops, we might have overlooked something – some facts or alternative point of view; we might have made a miscalculation; or some of our assumptions require improvement? We might have made a mistake or two or overlooked a crucial detail? No! The True Believers double down. 

What went wrong? Sometimes the fault is internal. The faith of the True Believer was not strong enough. We must confess our sins. Preferably, we must confess our failings in a public show trial and be martyred. However, preferably the fault is external. Outside agitators, the unwashed masses from a foreign land, a racial or ethnic minority stabbed us in the back. 

Alternative facts, dangerous half-truths, and total nonsense are marshaled to account for the setback. “We was robbed!”  “Betrayal!” The vote count shows we lost by five million votes; but those votes were invalid votes, stolen votes, non-existent votes, and, therefore, irrelevant. Anything except the simple fact, we screwed up (but how?) or our game plan did not survive the encounter with the real world situation at a given time and place. Thus, the definition by example of the True Believer.

You, dear reader, can see where this is going. How does empathy or an empathic person engage with the True Believer? If the True Believer takes a position that rules out an inquiry into the advantages and disadvantages, the benefits and draw backs, of one’s own or competing belief systems, then the conversation does not get going. How to get the conversation going?

Rarely is empathy irrelevant but there are some situations in which empathy is less (or more) useful than other situations. For example, if someone is throwing rocks, then understanding the rock throwing person is expressing his sense of grievance in a bad way is less useful than stopping them from throwing rocks. 

Things such as self-defense, security, safety, basic well being are necessary aspects of the situation for empathy to make a difference. The True Believer is different from the bully, the psychopathic, the psychotic, or the fanatic, whether religious or political – but sometimes not that much different. 

The guidance from empathy in the face of bullying, psychopathic manipulations, or rock throwing is to set limits. Likewise, with the True Believer. Key term: limit setting. Empathy is useful in deescalating aggression, hostility, violence, and other forms of acting out; but once the first rock flies through the air, the situation is no longer one about empathy. It is about reestablishing safety, security, and a space of acceptance and tolerance where empathy can actually make a difference. As noted, empathy is going to give the True Believer a good listening.

It is sometimes said that there is a little bit of larceny in all of us. That little bit of larceny is useful in empathizing with the bad boy or girl. That little bit of larceny is useful in figuring out what might have motivated a given individual’s antisocial behavior. 

The same idea applies to empathizing with the True Believer. If you can relate to your own inner True Believer, then you might be able to engage with the True Believer’s in the community to understand what makes them tick. 

The challenge is that in relating to your inner True Believer, you are not really relating to an individual, you are relating to a belief system, some of the principles of which may be useful and sensible, others less so.

The secret of empathic relating to the True Believer is not agreeing or disagreeing, undercutting or side-stepping, antidepressants or antipsychotics, the secret is the relationship the empath has to his own inner True Believer. If you can find an area in which you really are a True Believer, then it is likely you can relate to a True Believer in a conversation for possibility in which both individuals are left in integrity, whole and complete. 

How shall I put it delicately? An authentic patriot can be willing to die for his [or her] country and yet not be a True Believer. But can he be willing to kill for his country without being a true believer? This is hard to finesse. When challenged, True Believers escalate in the direction of a fanaticism of hostility and aggression, even if they stop short of the death penalty. 

I hasten to add that national defense is a valid function of the national armed forces, and I honor service men and women, first responders, and those committed to homeland security. Following orders to shoot the enemy on command of the commanding officer does not make one a True Believer. But it does make one a cog in a mechanism of defense, which in most cases requires a therapeutic recovery process to regain lost aspects of one’s humanity upon discharge from the armed forces. 

Is the True Believer like the bully, the psychopath, or the perpetrator of domestic violence, for whom the more expanded empathy you give the person, the more ways the True Believer has to manipulate and abuse you?  Some of the best parts of empathy – reduced stress, emotional regulation, self soothing – do not get deployed because empathy must put all its energy into setting limits to the boundary issues and violations. 

The fall back position of empathy – which paradoxically ceases to be empathy – is to have compassion or even pity for the misguided soul who needs such a delusional system to feel or maintain a grip on reality. Absent successful boundary setting using empathy, the recommendation is to dial 911 and summon emergency services to restore order and tranquility (a desperate measure indeed, given that the police may arrive with guns out – how is that serving and protecting?).

I anticipate an objection at this point. The devil’s advocate says: But, Lou, are you not a True Believer in empathy? The answer is direct: No. I am committed to undertaking an inquiry into empathy. Empathy has strengths and weaknesses. It can misfire or it can succeed. It is susceptible of improvement in many situations. I hasten to add that I am also committed to using empathy to benefit people and organizations in the community. I am a shameless and unabashed promoter of the value of empathy. I will go to the matt on this one. 

However, even if you do not believe in empathy, are persuaded that empathy is over-rated, or prefer rational compassion, I will still try my best to give you a good listening and to use empathy to make a positive difference in our relationship. No doubt more needs to be written about empathy and the True Believer. The politics of empathy is deep and complicated. There is a lot at stake. Literally.

This may indeed be a “love the sinner but hate the sin” moment. But such a moment is the positive part of empathic spirituality without which fanaticism causes spirituality to go off the rails and burn people at the stake. So if you find yourself or your neighbor gathering kindling for a bonfire, make sure it is to roast one’s own idols, pretensions, and vanities, not your neighbor. 

Bibliography

Eric Hoffer. (1951). The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. New York: Harper Perennial.

(c) Lou Agosta PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project