In this wonderfully illustrated talk about "preparing the groundwork for an empathic civilization," Jeremy Rifkin discusses the evolution of empathy how it has shaped human development and how we interact. Check it out, then come back and we'll talk:



What he's saying here is that we need to broaden our sense of identity from selfish or tribal or religious or national identity to identifying as part of human civilization, as a fellow living being, as part of the Earth's biosphere - and I would add, as part of the Milky Way Galaxy, as part of the universe as a whole. He says that we are "soft-wired for sociability, attachment, affection, companionship," and that our "first drive is to belong. It's an empathic drive."

He summarizes, "If we are truly Homo Empathicus, then we need to bring out that core nature. Because if it doesn't come and out it's repressed by our parenting, our educational system, our business practices, our government, the secondary drives take over: the narcissism, materialism, utilitarianism, violence, and aggression."

This is the primary theme in all I write. It's what Transcendence is about, what Empire Ship is about, and what my upcoming young-adult SF books will be about - that we must be empathic in all we do, because all we produce (our "fictions," technology and nationalism (in its broadest sense) and religion build barriers to understanding one another. Those walls we build rise so naturally when we don't exercise empathy - which is hard! It hurts to feel the suffering around us - and the wall-building grows as we stifle our empathic capacity, thereby limiting our ability to see others as like us in some way, even as human.

Lack of understanding leads to lack of empathy. Lack of empathy leads to easy dehumanization (or de-bunny-ization or so forth). Next, our identity shrinks until at some point it shrivels down to just Me. Then selfish drives take over, and it feels right and sensible that all I care about is what I want, because I can't imagine what others would think or feel. Now it's easy to hurt others; it's easy to disregard others, to lock them away in dungeons, to steal from them or take advantage of them, to rape or kill them.

It's only natural that prisoners and victims develop powerful empathy for their abusers, because the victim's world makes no sense: Why would someone do this to me? So they grope for understanding, exercising their empathic powers, delving into the minds of their abusers. This is why we have Stockholm Syndrome, why people stay with their abusive parents or partners.

It also explains why people who consistently behave in sociopathic ways - guards at secret prisons, habitual criminals, investment bankers - appear to lose their humanity. It's why military training works hard to erase the humanity of the target, and why soldiers make poor police. In fact, I would like to see a study that seeks to cure "sociopaths," because I hypothesize that such people might be curable over time if they exercise their atrophied empathy.

The dude who wandered around the Middle East a couple thousand years ago preached love and understanding and forgiveness: He preached that we must exercise our empathy or we will descend into Hell, which - In a literal sense - means that our world will become horrific if we are incapable of understanding and empathizing with one another.

Saving the world is simple: The sooner we start embracing the people and animals and natural wonders around us as part of us, as our identity, the sooner we will solve all the problems facing us.

This is also what I love about science fiction: It is the literature of the human species, not limited to the individual or nation or religion or even species or planet. Taken as a whole, SF says that we are all in this together, and when we're not - and when we lose our capacity to think of us as in it together - things go to hell in a hurry. As our technology grows more powerful, so too does our capacity to dehumanize and destroy others.

The Cold War was so horrible because it institutionalized anti-empathy. All wars are like this, including the current "war on terror" (and we all know that, right now, that means against Islamic fundamentalism), which is worse in many ways because it is not nation vs. nation or ideology vs. ideology: It's Us vs. Them. There's no reasoning with that, and the side-effects are pervasive and creeping. We all know The Terrorists are evil, right? And they all know that the West is evil. There's no room for understanding when our walls rise up and meet at the top.

When we cease empathizing, when we lose the capacity to imagine the other as our self, we build mausoleums around our cultures, nations, religions, and everything else that constitutes our identity - around our very selves! But empathizing is hard, I know. Listening to the news is painful, because it's all about suffering and loss. As the Dread Pirate said, "Life is pain, princess. Anyone who says differently is selling something." Heck, every week I see an animal on the side of road, needlessly killed by inattentive drivers, and that makes me suffer a little more. When I can, I stop and move the dead thing to the bushes and tell it that it's safe now, but at a deeper level that's just for me, to ease my empathic suffering.

One can argue that the most selfish thing you can do is to empathize. But as Rifkin says, "To empathize is to civilize," so this is one need we should satisfy whenever we can.

To be able to feel others in our heart: This is what it means to love. When people say that love is what life is all about, that there's nothing greater than to love and be loved in return, they don't mean some cheesy Hallmark version of love; they mean empathize with each other. This is all that matters in life. This is how we save the world.

Go out and empathize today!

Love,
Chris
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