The Role of Empathy in the 21st Century

Whether or not you are religiously inclined, the statement purportedly spoken 2,000 years ago by a man whose worldview spawned a number of organized religions including Christianity – “Judge not that ye be not judged” – is worthy of deep consideration. Judgment, the arch-rival of empathy, is an insidious and pernicious human invention.

The millennium-and-a-half that followed the challenge issued by these words was characterized by a coarsening of human consciousness, particularly in the West. The restrictive and repressive grasp of the saeculum obscurum, the “Dark Age,” that followed the decline and eventual fall of the Roman Empire was not released until what we now call the Renaissance.

The Renaissance (16th-18th century) heralded major changes in literature, architecture, humanism and many other areas. The aperture in consciousness and human understanding generated the mental and emotional wherewithal for the period called the Enlightenment.

With the Enlightenment came the articulation of core values that continue to shape our lives, our decisions, our institutions and our societies. The ideas generated in the Enlightenment made us, again particularly those of us in the Western world, what we are today. The last 250 years of our experience could be said to contain the most concentrated progress of any era in recorded history.

One of the central tenets of the Enlightenment is universalism, the idea that all people share human rights and are deserving of dignity. Universalism is rooted in the idea that there is a common thread of truth that unites all people, despite the appearance of endless variety on the surface.

The technological advancements of our recent era in transportation and communication give the very real impression of a shrinking world. We’re learning more about one another more rapidly than ever and geographic separation no longer means isolation. The recent tragedy in Haiti, for instance, and the unrest in Iran are seen as affecting the whole of humanity by virtue of Twitter, YouTube and other digitally driven media outlets. The opportunity to care for others is at an all time high.

Empathy, the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes, is a precious resource that allows us to thrive in an global, interdependent world. Despite major setbacks in the 20th century, empathy as a societal meme is gaining in popularity.

Of the many impediments to the cultivation of a sense of empathy in our citizens the refusal to relinquish judgment is perhaps the most well-entrenched in people, religious or not. Judgments held over time by individuals or by groupings of individuals tend to congeal or crystallize as prejudices, blockages which greatly compromise our capacity for empathy.

In this sense it is clear that: “Judge not that ye be not judged” is less of a disconnected, overly optimistic religious injunction than it is a statement of fundamental truth that describes the method by which our inherent capacity for empathy is unshackled.

I propose that we recognize empathy as the precious resource that it was, is and always will be, not just for the sake of continued advances in self-actualization, but for the sake of the world we, as human beings, share.

To Empathize is to Civilize

Yesterday I touched very briefly on the matter of empathy and I would like to take a short walk with you down that road to discover the influence this fundamental human capacity has on your life and the world at large.

Recent discoveries in the fields of neuropsychology, brain science and childhood development show that we are soft-wired with what are called mirror neurons. These special neurons allow us to experience the plight, joy, frenzy, fear or delight of others as if those experiences were our own.

There is growing scientific evidence and understanding of this mechanism and we are beginning to understand that a statement like “I feel your pain” is much more than just a kind gesture. It is a statement of fact. You really can perceive and feel what others are feeling and experiencing as if their experience was your own.

Author and political advisor Jeremy Rifkin gave an interesting talk called “Empathetic Civilisation.” This RSA Animate presentation describes Rifkin’s interpretation of this growing body of research in a fascinating format and his conclusions are debatable yet intriguing. What does our future hold?

One of the most fundamental motivations driving virtually all human beings is the longing to belong. Man is a gregarious creature. I remember speaking a number of years ago with a fellow about my age who had embraced the “punk” movement. He prided himself on the idea of expressing his individuality, of being different and of testing the boundaries of societal norms.

I saw him later that week with his friends and I had to chuckle to myself as I had a hard time distinguishing him in all of his uniqueness from his friends in all of theirs! While the mohawks from one person to the next were a bit different, they loved the same music, held the same social views, disdained the same norms, etc. In short, they found others with whom they could belong comfortably.

Empathy is the quality that facilitates belonging. It is, as Rifkin notes, the force that permits civilization. As selfhood increases, so too does empathic development. We all share various levels and depths of relatedness to one another, but today I would like to ask if you feel you are using that powerful mechanism wisely.

Some people are afraid of their capacity to “feel” others and do their level best to shut it off. Others fail to differentiate between the feelings of others and their own feelings. They have a permanent seat on the emotional roller-coaster and like babies in a nursery compelled neurologically to cry when they her another baby cry, they have no idea why they are feeling what they are feeling!

You can and should feel empathetically those around you but you are wise to develop the ability to handle those feelings maturely and with equanimity. Empathy provides you with the vision to work effectively with others. It ensures that you won’t deal with others like a bull in a china shop and like a flashlight it allows you to navigate the often dark and tortuous pathways of human consciousness.

Where do you start? First, by taking a moment before you react to what your feeling. Give you brain a second to catch up. Ask yourself, is this my experience or that of another? If it is not yours, be very careful about giving it too much weight in your heart and mind, instead, look to offer what is called in homeopathy, the “sarcode” (the imprint of healthy tissue), in relation to that feeling. Put simply, ask yourself “how can I most creatively handle this feeling at this time?”

The trouble comes when you don’t stop to think, when you react rather than acting proactively. You almost always have more time to strategize than you think. Resist the temptation to “rush in where angels fear to tread.”

We are feeling creatures. Feeling is vitally important. It is what connects us invisibly and what moves us deeply. Realizing that we are soft-wired to experience one another’s feelings, it behooves us to use this capacity wisely, carefully and for the betterment of humanity.

An Ode to my Friends on a Hot Summer’s Morn’


“I don’t need a friend who changes when I change and who nods when I nod; my shadow does that much better.” ~Plutarch

Sympathy is the death knell of a good friendship. Empathy, on the other hand, is a restorative balm that heals life’s cuts and scrapes. Sympathy says to another “you are right to complain” while empathy elicits solutions from friends who express genuine concern.

Friends rightly chosen consistently call for the finest from you. They expect your best and refuse to accept excuses for shortcuts, shortcomings and short-sightedness. At the same time, friends well chosen are the most forgiving of your associates. They accept you as you are but always leave room for the new you, especially when others would write you off or turn a cold shoulder, in search of fairer weather.

True friends invest trust beyond the point where you feel trustworthy. Such trust compels greatness in action. While it is said that competition fuels innovation, in my estimation a trusting, cooperative friend is the greater catalyst.


“It is not so much our friends’ help that helps us, as the confidence of their help.” ~Epicurus

I thank my lucky stars for my circle of friends. Their expression of excellence inspires mine. Their solidity – no matter how stormy life’s seas may become – affords me an island upon which I can catch my breath and regain my legs. More importantly, their unconditional love enkindles my respect and appreciation for others.

Do you have such a friend? There is nothing on earth to be more prized than a true and honest friend. Many who would claim to be your friend will turn their backs on you or even stab yours out of smallness, desperation or shame, but find one friend, one true friend, and your life will never be the same.

Let not the small and desperate acts of those who would violate your friendship cause you to lose heart. Instead, let the experience redouble your resolve to be a right and dependable friend to those who remain.

Mark Twain

“Keep away from those who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you believe that you too can become great.” ~Mark Twain

Retaliation, retribution, diminution, disrespect and dishonesty are the tools of those who have failed to come to know the reality of their greatness. Those who employ such tools will eventually find themselves alone, distrustful of others and in need of a true friend. Conversely, forgiveness, inspiration, reverence and honorableness constrain to a noble and endearing state of being.

Which will it be for you?

Train of Thought

“Don’t let yesterday use up too much of today.” ~ Will Rogers

It was getting late and the conversations in German, French, English and Spanish were starting to wear on my already tired brain. The year was 1993 and I had just completed a bicycle tour around Bavaria with a friend of mine, Charlie (the trip I mentioned in the post “A Brave and Determined Spirit“). I was on my way to Paris aboard the train sitting with Germans in front of me, a Frenchman to my left, and English couple behind me and Spaniards to my right.

For whatever reason, most of the passengers in my car were elderly, eager to talk and fascinating beyond words. While looking for the word “upheaval” in my French dictionary, the thought crossed my mind that several, if not all of these itinerant octogenarians were likely at war with one another earlier in their lives. The very people I was sitting in the middle of (or at least their friends or relatives) had likely shot at one another in their youth!

Never having fought in a war personally I can’t even imagine what a powerful impression that must leave on your mind and heart. I feel for those who have suffered the ravages of war. That said, what stood out to me at the time was neither a distaste for war nor chagrin for the inability of the human race to maintain peace, but rather a profound respect for the human capacity to let bygones be bygones.

While I do not know if any or all of them had forgiven or forgotten, I observed that they were able to enjoy one another without any hint of anger, lingering disdain or spite. A remarkable thing, really. At that point I realized that in any given moment of time you have the option to focus your attention on the past, the present or the future.

There is very little value in living in the past. For starters, you cannot do anything about the past. Past is past. Understanding the past may give you insight as to how to handle the present moment, but depending overly on your view of the past can distort your view on the present. You can no more decide what to do now by fixating on the past than you can focus on your first grade class photo and know exactly what your former friends will be wearing tomorrow.

Beyond that, people change and times change. What was important to our forefathers is not necessarily important to us now. Life is not static. It flows, it moves, its forms grow and decay. If you try to hold on to some element of the past – someone you hated, something you loved, an experience that you have yet to top – and superimpose it on your present circumstances, you will likely find yourself out of touch with what is really going on.

If you’ve ever lost your train of thought or had someone tell you that you needed a reality check, you know what I mean. For some reason you let your heart or mind get out of synch with the facts of the moment or of the matter. You got caught up living in the past, misinterpreting the present or perhaps even dreamily dwelling in the future, and in that moment you lost touch.

Life provides everyone with endless opportunities for growth and for change. If you develop the ability to stay focused in what is happening here and now – in every moment – you will gain more momentum in your living than you knew was possible. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “With the past, I have nothing to do; nor with the future. I live now.”

Have a good one!

Live life to the fullest

I was watching the reality show, Deadliest Catch, the day before yesterday. This tribute episode featured Captain Phil Harris, who died in February of this year. A man who lived life to the fullest – and then some! – Captain Harris made a number of interesting statements, one of which I would like to share with you today.

Captain Harris was speaking about his father, who like him was Captain of a fishing boat in the Bering Sea. He admired his father, Grant, tremendously and recalled a statement that his father made while he was a young man: “You can watch things happen, make things happen or wonder what the hell happened.” Phil said (and I paraphrase) “I wasn’t sure what I needed to do, but I knew for sure that I didn’t want to fall in the last category.”

Life is too short to sit idly as a spectator. Vicarious fulfillment will never match the intensity and depth of true fulfillment. While recklessness is not advisable, decent boldness is. You cannot expect others to live your life for you. Your decisions are your decisions. Others can make suggestions, give advice, share experience, etc., but your decisions are ultimately your decisions.

You can grace the world with your mind, your body and your heart. You can be yourself and live life to the fullest. Never believe anyone who tells you that you cannot.

Thank you WordPress Freshly Pressed!

This blog is dedicated to those human beings who chose or who choose to live extraordinary lives. Rather than follow the herd, these thought leaders cultivated an understanding of the principles that govern the life itself and acted in some way or another in relation to that knowledge. These are people who went the extra mile, who cared more about others than they did themselves and who consistently chose integrity over expediency.

Much to my surprise and delight, today’s post was promoted to Freshly Pressed by WordPress. I consider this recognition an incredible honor and and to me it says that lives well-lived matter and are worth considering.

You can make a difference in the world you center. How? There are certain principles that, properly understood, allow you to navigate life effectively and victoriously. Feel free to dig around this blog for those principles, realizing that in one sense they are nothing new, but in another, they are the means by which all things in your world – and the world at large – can be made new!

What matters more than your talents.

Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of, recently gave a graduation address at his alma mater, Princeton University. He made the case that our character is defined not by the gifts we’re born with, but by the choices we make as we move through life.

Each of us is endowed with a unique combination of natural gifts and talents. We are likewise each born with the capacity of choice. The question is, how will you use those gifts? What you have or have not done up until now is unimportant. What matters is what you will do with the rest of your life.

Bezos asked a number of important questions about the life you author:

1.  How will you use your gifts? What choices will you make?

2. Will inertia be your guide or will you follow your passions?

3. Will you follow dogma or will you be original?

4. Will you choose a life of ease or a life of service and adventure?

5. Will you wilt under criticism or will you follow your convictions?

6. Will you bluff it out when you are wrong or will you apologize?

7. Will you guard your heart against rejection or will you act when you fall in love?

8. Will you play it safe or will you be a little bit swashbuckling?

9. When it’s tough, will you give up or will you be relentless?

10. Will you be a cynic or will you be a builder?

11. Will you be clever at the expense of others or will you be kind?

Life will present you with countless opportunities to make choices in the days to come. Will you choose life? Will you challenge yourself? Will you magnify the gifts given to you and to others through your choices?

Time will tell, but forewarned is forearmed.

Have an absolutely fantastic week!