Thoughts about Empathy on April Fools Day

Empathy is a concept that enjoys ( or suffers from ) many definitions. It is, in a very broad sense, defined as the capacity to recognize and, to some extent, share feelings that are being experienced by another person.

“Empathy depends not only on one’s ability to identify someone else’s emotions but also on one’s capacity to put oneself in the other person’s place and to experience an appropriate emotional response” Charles G. Morris

In times where the news consists primarily of rapid fire reports that detail the collective and individual suffering of people across the globe. It is not uncommon for us to see in just a few short minutes:

* The wrath of Japan’s Tsunami

* Airstrikes in Libya

* Accounts of Genocide

We are often attracted to the drama of these natural disasters, revolts, warfare and atrocities. The news coverage highlights what can be covered in media bites that fit the format. If we are disturbed by a particular story, it is very easy for us to hit mute, turn the channel or simply press off. We can disconnect ourselves from the reality immediately. We play our own version of an April fools joke on ourselves. It is so easy to do. It is fast, and effective. We filter our intake, much as we do with junk mail, spam and the like.

What is easily forgotten, is that we “fool” ourselves to thinking that these stories cease to exist because the screen is black. Of course, they are not. The people who are affected by all of these quite traumatic events are still suffering with the reality of their life when the cameras are off. The loss of life, limb, personal safety, and liberty continues.

“The fool speaks, the wise man listens” — African proverb

So, on a day where we may share a trick or two with friends and family, let’s not forget that the world has become a place of great personal suffering and strife for many people, each with a story to be told. Let’s stop fooling ourselves into thinking that the suffering of others is not, in some sense, ours as well.

For, it is through empathy, not apathy, that we can make a difference in the lives of others, one at a time.

The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world’s problems. Mohandas Gandhi

Not a Perfect Game, but a perfect ending…

Perfection is elusive.

There are not many places where we are judged against a standard that allows observers to conclude that something was “perfect.” Usually we judge perfection against some subjective standard that allows us to make that assessment. Usually it is in reference to something we treasure — the perfect day, hamburger, sunrise.

It seems that sports is an arena that has established standards for judging  perfection — bowling a 300 game; and yes pitching a perfect game. Education also contributes to the chase for perfection — 100% on an exam, and the 4.0 average are , but those “perfects” have as much to do with the difficulty of the questions as  the answers given. In sports the competitive edge and structure of the game, creates a truer objective standard against which to measure perfection.

It occurs to me that the recent baseball “imperfection” is a good opportunity to consider that it is not how we handle “perfect” that counts, but rather how we handle “imperfect.”  What was interesting was the outrage of the fans, coaches, media and other players who were outraged in defense of the perfect game, while Armando Galarraga stood and smiled.  What was apparent to the world was that the pitcher pitched a perfect game, but Jim Joyce, the umpire, did not call a perfect game.

A lesson here is that is takes more than on pitcher to create a perfect game. It takes the whole team to play their error free best, and each umpire to call an error free game. One missed call behind the plate, could result in a walk. One dropped or booted ball from a teammate could result in an error. So we were left with an a perfect game played by Galarraga, his teammates, and the umpires, except for the one missed call.  Near perfection that caused outrage.  Because the call was so obvious, the outrage was well placed.

But, what we did not recognize at that moment is that  Jim Joyce did not see the taped replay. We had more information, in slow-motion and freeze-frame, than he had. Of course he defended his call, because he only knew what he perceived at that moment.

What happened next was something that will forever re-write the way the story of the 28 out perfect game will be told.

Jim Joyce looked at the tape, saw his mistake and admitted he blew the call. He knew that he had taken away from Galarraga something that eluded all but 20 others in the history of the game. Joyce showed a true sense of remorse and self- criticism. There was no attempt by him to defend the call. It was the perfect confession – I blew it. I was wrong. No excuses.

The tearful events at the beginning of the next game demonstrated how two people who have suffered through a problem, where the behavior of one hurts the other, can decide to accept what happened as unchangeable, but to restore a relationship that will endure beyond that one game.

It took two people to make it happen.

They did it on their own.

Two men, each of great character created a new perfect for the world to talk about…..

A perfect ending.

“The Cambridge police acted stupidly…” – an unfortunate remark

As much as I believe that our President does an excellent job of saying the right thing at the right time, almost all the time — I think he failed when he made the remarks  the Cambridge police.

What is painfully apparent is that he spoke without full knowledge of the facts of the occurrence. Also these remarks fueled a national debate on the prevalence of “racial profiling.” While I am no expert on profiling, it seems to me that the police responded to  a request to investigate a crime in process. In my view profiling has no applicability. If the police did not respond to the call because it was a black allegedly breaking into a black occupied residence, then that would, arguably, be fodder for a discussion of whether profiling was present, and a basis for the police inaction.

If the “profiling” occurred after the police interrogated the professor in his home, then any examination of the issue shouldd be done after full disclosure of the facts from all those present. What the press has forgotten is that the professor did not get arrested for breaking and entering. Rather, it was for disorderly conduct, which apparently relates to his alleged behavior after the police arrived and interrogated him.

A question we may all ask, is suggested by a hypothetical. If there was an actual break-in by someone other than the professor, and the police behaved in exactly the same way with the actual criminal, and the professor was an observer of the behavior rather than a participant — how would the professor judge the police officer’s behavior. How would we?

The point is that we all are perturbed by interrogation, searches, etc., when we are innocent. Airport travellers are well aware of this.  The professor, likely, felt invaded. However, let’s face it — he forgot his key and had to break in to his house. Embarrassing, yes.  I suspect that at some time while he was trying to break into the house, that the thought crossed his mind — the police could show up, and this doesn’t look so good. Hopefully, he thought through a response. One response might have been to thank the neighbors for calling it in, thank the police for promptly investigating, answer all questions politely, and to apologize for the mistake he made that caused others to be alarmed and the police to be occupied investigating something that was the result of his forgetfulness.

At times we need to accept responsibility for our own behavior.

The President could have used this as a teaching opportunity to benefit  all of us. Unfortunately, he did. But the lesson was the wrong one. He did not have all the facts. He pre-judged. He fueled a debate on profiling, rather than encouraging people to accept responsibility for their own behavior.

This was a missed opportunity to continue his great efforts and success teach and to bring people together.