The trouble with empathy

Have you ever wondered if you’re a good person? If any of us are truly good people? Recently, I’ve been consuming a lot of Mister Rogers-related media. For those unfamiliar, Fred Rogers was an American television presenter and host of the kids’ series Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood, which ran from 1968 to 2001. The show emphasised young children’s emotional needs and, crucially, did so without a cognitive learning angle. Rather, its focus was on children developing feelings and a sense of moral reasoning. Besides being remembered as just a genuinely nice guy, Rogers taught children lessons in empathy, which—some twenty years after his death—the world is still ruminating on. Perhaps it’s just a sign of the times we’re living in, or perhaps it speaks to the fact that empathising with others isn’t always easy. Actually, it can be really, really hard.

In an episode of the podcast Finding Fred, host Cavell Wallace interviews Ashley C Ford, a writer and educator who refers to Rogers as a ‘genius of empathy.’ We tend to think of the realm of feelings as intrinsic to us as humans, and therefore not requiring any further discipline, but Rogers understood that being a person with feelings takes work. Empathy, in particular, is a pretty radical idea: the notion that we can so closely identify with another person that we can appreciate their feelings, which can be difficult given that many of us aren’t all that comfortable with our own feelings. Furthermore, today's social and political climate  begs an important question: Is the Mister Rogers ‘I like you just the way you are’ rhetoric still tenable in 2020, when the world seems more divided than ever? Are we supposed to have empathy for everyone? For racists? For corrupt political figures? For rapists? For Nazis? How do we decide who is and isn’t worthy of our empathy? Where would we even begin?

In considering these and other issues on the podcast, Ford refers to an example from her own past. She explains that her father went to prison when she was a baby and wasn’t released until she was well into adulthood. During her adolescence, Ford’s father would write to her from prison, praising her, telling her that he loved her, and that he was thinking of her all the time. This ongoing support from her father was, in Ford’s words, ‘the basis of my self-esteem.’ When she turned fourteen, however, Ford discovered that he was in prison for sexual assault. She says that this revelation was, obviously, incredibly difficult, because it meant grappling with the fact that the man who was responsible for the worst moment of someone else’s life was also responsible for Ford’s own self-worth and values. It also started Ford’s journey to understanding the complexity of human nature: the idea that one person’s hero can be another person’s nightmare, and both of those things can be true. They have to be true. Her father had done a terrible, monstrous thing, and he’d also helped Ford to not feel completely alone in the world. The former did not simply negate the latter.

The reality is, it's a lot harder to ‘cancel’ your Dad than it is a Hollywood figure. I don’t know how to live in the world without really staring that in the face, without recognising that we’re all connected to each other, for better or worse. I also don’t necessarily know how to be the kind of mature person who can hold two competing ideals simultaneously. That’s not something I—or any of us, for that matter—was shown how to do. Maybe I just didn’t find Mister Rogers in time.

Ford understands the complexity of emotion perhaps better than any of us; the mixture of anger, hatred, disgust, frustration, fear, and guilt that can affect every part of you. Because of that, she also understands how important empathy is. What, if not empathy, will be left when the hate is no longer enough? Because it’s never enough, and it will never sustain you. So, says Ford, when it eventually dissipates, we’ll have to make a choice about what it is we take from the wreckage. Both she and Mister Rogers suggest we choose empathy.

Tagged in mental health, Opinion, Wellbeing, Culture, What messes with your head