Saturday, August 15, 2020

Getting to the why behind the Golden Rule

“Do unto others…”

We’ve all heard the Golden Rule in one form or another. But as with all overly idealistic admonitions, we all too often end up merely pay lip service to it, don’t we?

What if instead we worked out why such a rule is in our best interest to follow? In other words, I’m suggesting resorting to the good old “What’s in it for me?” framework.

Lately, I was having one of my occasional “excogitations” — aka mental meanderings — as I was reflecting on some basics of interpersonal relationships.

A few days prior, someone had accidentally (and unknowingly) overpaid me for a transaction. As a matter of course, I immediately contacted them and arranged to return the superfluous funds, which as you would expect, earned me some thank you’s for my honesty, etc.

Now, there are many reasons why one might want to follow the straight and narrow path.

For example, it could be out of religious belief. However, it’s not personally my cup of tea.

Up until now, I would have told you that I did it because I believe in Karma. I wrote about it way back here.

But such reasoning is arguably still hinging on a belief system, rather than facts.

What would constitute a logical reason for treating others as one would wish to be treated by said others?

So in my recent moment of mental clarity, I came to the conclusion that, since no one can ultimately lie to themselves, treating others justly earns one respect and trust in their own self. If I’m to be my own best friend, I want to know at a deep level that I respect and trust myself. If I genuinely treat others like I would like to be treated, even when they wouldn’t know any better either way, I personally would know that I am this person, and that’s all that would matter.

At that point, I would basically be doing it because my good opinion of myself, being one of my most valuable assets, is what I would want to protect for the gem that it is.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Back to the fiction writing

After putting my aspirations of writing a science-fiction novel to rest a couple years ago, it has but caused the book to incubate in my head further and develop into something perhaps richer. The story lives on and bits and pieces of it burst into my consciousness from time to time, whether I like it or not ... and as of late, with accelerating frequency.
It is kind of a twisting path I find myself in, but in many ways, it is coming full circle. When I was in my early teens, I have been accused by one of my teachers of having had one of my essays written by my mother as I “could not possibly have written it on my own.” My lovely mother’s response was that she couldn’t never in a hundred years have written it so well (I have a humble mother). I was an avid reader throughout my childhood all the way into my teen years and beyond. It was a common scene to find my entire class paying baseball, while I, parked at a safe distance, could be observed devouring a novel; or I would sit in class completely ignoring the teacher and the topic at hand, be in math, physics, economics, etc., and let myself get engrossed in my book “du jour”. When teachers would call my mom about it, the consensus was generally, “since he doesn’t bother anybody, let’s just let him do it.” As life went on, the obligations of existence largely pried me off of my intellectual binging, although it never stopped. Then, come around 2010, I decided to do a startup, although I had no name at the time for what that activity was supposed to be called. I plunged in and three iterations of it later, I now understood why it was not be the path I would be best suited for. The pursuit had already paid off as it had caused me to find out and invest in bitcoin early (although the benefit only became apparent years later during the 2017 crytpo boom cycle). I had been maniacal about following and aiming to understand the tech ecosystem, and more precisely, the VC industry. To this day, I can’t — or won’t — stop reading blogs, listening to podcasts, reading books, listening to interviews and more on this topic: I’m fully “tuned in”. But this world of knowledge wants to burst into a book, revealing in the process what a hunch tells me could be my true calling: writing.
And what is writing? It is a manifestation of creativity, of course, my long-time source of happiness and joy. Years ago, I turned my masonry business into a creative endeavor, restoring historic homes so they looked as though they had been time-kissed. I have built a music studio in my home and learned on my own to do recording and sound engineering for my own music. I have built a guitar last year, which is my best-playing one yet, out of a collection of fifteen specimens. Creativity is what keeps me going. It might just be that writing is the form of it I end up doing best at. We’ll find out.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Not taking our way of life for granted

I hope that by now everyone realizes that we’ll be very lucky if some form of a global crisis, the like of which we have never seen, does not hit us before the end of the current US administration.

 I typically tend not to take things for granted; therefore, I’ve caught myself at various intervals in my life appreciating the fact that there wasn’t anything dramatic going on in the world — such as WW3 — to upend our collective existence and ruin my life and everyone else’s.
But I’ve been uneasy lately about the unfolding of the recent political landscape. It’s been incessantly gnawing at me. It’s been in the background of everything else that I’ve put my mind to. It’s been there when getting out of bed and when getting back into it some 16 hours later.
It’s particularly unnerving to think that the White House agenda is being pushed by a white supremacist, Bannon, who worships the Fourth Turning ideology — and in fact hopes for armageddon to set humanity right again — as he controls a mentally unhinged President with no moral compass that carries a nuclear football wherever he goes.
It hasn’t helped my frame of mind reading all the social media coverage, I must admit.
Nonetheless, I have faced the tune for myself and made the anxiety go away by simply deciding to deal with whatever happens, and by accepting the fact that things could go really wrong, and we could, at the extreme end, lose our freedom and even our modern way of life — we could basically lose it all.
It could happen. I sure hope it doesn’t, but if it does, bring it on baby.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

On diversity and biases

Looking at the Donald Trump circus playing out right now, it’s abundantly clear that biases are alive and well in our society.
Trump is not creating these feelings in people, he’s simply harnessing them.
I see this as a wake up call to double down on working to eliminate biases in our society, if anything.
Trump is blatant and in your face. What most people usually do, though, is keep their biases well-hidden below the surface, suppressed by political correctness and other social norms. But that doesn’t get rid of them. And it’s not much better than what Trump is doing if you ask me, to put it bluntly.
I personally see Trump’s affronts as an opportunity to publicly acknowledge that biases still exist and to recognize that they should be worked on so as to be eventually eliminated.
It takes real work to do this.
Take me as an example, I’ve been raised in a borderline rural, predominantly white, area outside of Quebec city; and when I grew up, biases and racist comments were not uncommon. They were a way of life, sadly.
They consequently were ingrained deeply in my upbringing and I’ve been fighting them all my life and I still uncover some of them at times. I didn’t put them there. They were seeded by my environment. But it’s up to me to rid myself of them.
But what I’ve come to realize is not to try to pretend that they’re not there — that’s easy to do — but to me, the right thing is to tackle them head-on when they come up and confront them. And to not let them get by me "unscathed".
One of the problems is that often people aren’t even aware that they have gender, religious or ethnic biases.
A few Saturdays ago, I went downhill skiing and went relaxing in the resort’s outdoor spa afterwards, soaking in the hot water with my head exposed to the winter temperatures — lovely.
Anyway there was also a couple in the spa and I couldn’t help but hear what they were saying. They were discussing plans to add more living quarters for the mother of one of them and were contemplating how this would be a subsequent source of income when they would eventually rent the space to the “ideal tenant”: a single white female.
That’s two biases in a four-word phrase, but the lady was very-matter-of-fact about uttering those words.
Once casually discussing the career of a woman that both my father and I know, he said to me, “She’s making pretty good money for a woman.” There’s actually a good amount of baggage that goes with this one. The world was very different when my father grew up in the 50’s. When he got married in the 60’s, there were values to take pride in in supporting a wife and a child, and having the woman under the man’s wing. You were a good man if you did those things. And so I know that if I try to bring up this bias with him, I’m in for a long conversation that might lead to nowhere, as it’s below his awareness level to even consider. You’d have to peel the onion slowly one layer at a time. And you’d be in for several bottles of hard liquor — or beers, in his case!
In many ways, it comes down to one’s comfort zone and stepping outside one’s bubble. Stepping out of the zone can be hard — more for some than others, I suppose. It’s a conscious effort that may require an initial effort.
Throwing myself in intimate relationships with women at the other end of the religious / ethnic spectrum has gone a long way to help me embrace diversity.
I was once engaged with an African-Arabic Canadian woman. Her parents were Muslims. I met them once as they lived far away. We were eating buffet-style, and they would repeatedly slap her on the wrist during the meal if she had failed to serve my food (and I therefore had to reach for it myself). Then they absolutely insisted that she put my boots on for me before we left. Normal for them, way out there for me. I wanted her skinny, they gave her shit for letting herself getting so thin. She said it was what I wanted. They looked at me with disbelief and even contempt. Normal for me, way out there for them. But we could have worked it out. 
By the way, racism goes both ways. When I would drop her off at home after a date in the early days, before we moved in together, black guys would often approach her after I had left and ask her why she bothered going out with a “white trash”.
Or, when we would walk down a public street holding hands, we quite often had “Jungle fever” thrown at us as we would walk by a couple of black dudes.
That relationship didn’t ultimately work out and I ended up marrying a Chinese-Vietnamese girl instead. We’ve been together 17 years, as of a week ago today.
Getting married is hard enough in its own right, but with someone who is very culturally different and with different religious views, it can be a much wilder ride, as I have found out.
We also live in a profoundly diversified neighborhood: as a white guy, I’m the minority. There are no majorities in fact. There are Cambodians, Vietnamese, Portuguese, Latinos, Indians, East Europeans, you name it.
What I have discovered is that it takes real work to break down the barriers of ethnicity and religion if you make the effort to step outside of your bubble and really bust those walls and truly connect; but it’s worth it.
Having gone through it in our marriage has given me a lot of experience.
The same thing goes for the gender issue to a large degree, IMO.
You have to be willing to work at it, you have to communicate it out and develop enough empathy to understand what’s it’s like to be the other person.
That’ll be too much work for some to consider pursuing, but it’s up to the rest of us to get the ball rolling in earnest.
Being blunt, politically incorrect and “in your face”, as Donald Trump would have you believe, is not what is going to make “America great again”, but having become bias-free through collective soul searching is what can make the world at large great at last.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Equality doesn’t mean being the same

Joanne Wilson wrote a blog post yesterday, titled “Women look at things differently", in which she points out the differences in the genders’ way of making decisions.
The first thing that popped into my head when reading it was:
Equality doesn’t mean being the same — it means equal rights and opportunities.
I’m obviously not the first one to have said it, as a Google search will quickly confirm, but the thought hit me very clearly.
And it doesn't just apply to the gender issue.
People are different in many ways, and you can’t expect them to be the same.
But they all deserve to have equal rights and opportunities.
In every area of human interactions where equality is sought, whether it is gender, sex, ethnicity, health, etc., the mistake can commonly be made of saying, well, “They claim to be the same as us so we don’t need to give them any special treatment”.
That would be like saying that a handicapped player in a sport would have to play by the same rules if she wishes to be a part of the group … but she’s missing a arm and two legs, and so the considerate (and obvious) thing to do is to make concessions on the rules and allow her to play in a wheelchair with a prosthetic arm.
That logic might seem less obvious, however, in more abstract situations, but I would offer that the right thing to do is to focus on ensuring equal rights and opportunity while embracing the inherent differences that are present.
So following this formula, if I am a teacher for example, and I have a student that stutters very badly, I won’t have that kid stand in front of the class and be subject to embarrassment, ridicule and the resulting low-self-esteem that is sure to follow. He or she will have the exclusive right to present their presentation in writing and have another volunteering student read it out loud for them; as the goal is to give them an equal opportunity to present their ideas (which is the point) while working around what is different about them. But if they chose on their own accord to present it verbally, that would be up to them.
I obviously took the concept into another direction than what was essentially Joanne’s point; but that’s where her post has lead me to; and I think it’s touching on something real about Human Rights.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

What passes for “normal”…

A little while ago, I saw a scene that unfolds daily in every city around the around the world: two police officers patrolling down the street.
I don’t know if it was something about their demeanor, or the particular prominence of their guns on that day that struck me, but I had a little aha moment and I thought, “Gee, it should not be a normal state of affairs that we need armed individuals to keep watching over the population”.
The fact, that as you read this, you are likely to think I’m off my rocker is perhaps even more disturbing, I find, ha ha!
There are so many things in the world that we take as being “normal”, which are in fact passed the point of crisis, war being just one example.
But they usually belong to the field of the Humanities, and so we assume that we can’t solve them (another thing that shouldn’t be normal to have to postulate.)
Today’s startup founders’ focus is on technological innovations; however we are currently at an inflection point where technology impacts the Humanities: by unleashing the internet, we’ve shaken the fabric of society at its core.
The fact is that advancements in all branches of knowledge, including the Humanities, constitute innovation.
Presupposing a catastrophic situation to be normal precludes solving it. And this can be used against us by those “in the know” who want to manipulate us through our ignorance, for example.
Take the banking sector, for instance. All perfectly normal, isn’t it? Well, perhaps not.
Below is an excerpt taken from the Epicenter Bitcoin Podcast, Episode #93, posted on August 24, in which Simon Dixon talks about current banking practices.
See whether you still think all is normal after reading it:
“The reason that we’re in the financial problems we are is because we’re trapped in a multi-decade Ponzi scheme as it were, where in order to have an economy, you have to have more debt. And the reason for that is simply because money is debt. And so in order to have a growing a stimulating economy, you have to have governments take on more debts, you have individuals take on more debt, you have to have corporations take on more debt. And then you get growth. And that’s simply because Economics has made an incorrect assumption; and that assumption is that banks are intermediaries between borrowers and lenders, which is just not true.
…When you deposit money with a bank, they become the legal owner of your money.
…The second property that needs to be solved is that when banks become the legal owner of your money, they can spend it as they wish. And so what tends to happen is they spend it on things which help their shareholders and their bottom line, which aren’t good for the economy. Banks were originally around to make loans for businesses, businesses can then produce something, they create some jobs and they can repay the loan and it produces some value in society. What’s evolved is that the loans have always moved to the least risky and the most profitable thing to do. The most profitable thing to do is financial speculation which adds no value.
…A bank is actually the creator of money supply. Whenever you have a positive balance, in your online banking, that’s simply somebody else’s debt; and they created that money into existence at [the] point of issuing a loan. And so 97% of every penny in the economy is created that way, which means that the only way to drive sustainability, if you want an economy to grow, is you have to have more debt. If you want less debt, then you have to have a depression. And that’s why we have boom-bust, boom-bust, boom-bust.
…I believe the financial crisis was a banking problem, it wasn’t a capitalism problem. Capitalism is my opinion is not the crisis, yes there are problems with it — I believe it is one is the best way of organizing structures.
The problem right now is that capitalism is built upon a banking system where the petrol, the fuel of capitalism is money, and money is built upon a process whereby in order to be created it has to be created as debt; and therefore, that completely skews where money is allocated, who can access capital, and the size of certain organizations that have access to capital. So I believe that we have a banking problem, and that then leads to a corporation problem, because corporations have access to finances that small to medium size enterprises don’t have access to, and therefore you get skewing of the economy. And we’ve never had capitalism to actually test.
Now, if you look at countries like Iceland right now, they are testing capitalism in its true extent. They’ve sent the bankers to prison, they’ve sued them for counter-fitting their money supply when they issue loans, and they’re looking at crypto-currencies as a foundation for their economy.
… The only way you’ll get the government to change is a complete meltdown. They have no appetite to change prior to any kind of meltdown. Unfortunately, necessity is the mother of all invention. Banking and government are completely entrenched. We’ve already seen an example of meltdown post the sub-prime crisis. And we saw exactly what they would do. They’ll create another central bank which puts together more control, they’ll lock up more control currencies, and they’ll always be issued as debt. And then all they do is kick the can down the road a little bit further.
… They chose the exact cause of the problem as the solution to the problem, and I believe they will do that forever because the brave person that goes into government and tries to exercise some of the powers which they totally have to create money without issuing debt would be met with such massive, ginormous resistance.
… If you model out the economics of our existing system, you are going to get a few results. The results that you have is a larger divide between rich and poor. You have larger consolidation of assets between ultra-wealthy, connected people and ultra-wealthy, connected institutions. And with each bailout you move the bar in terms of the debts to the most indebted people. You re-distribute the debts to the taxpayer and that increases the rich-poor divide in its infancy, but eventually, there comes a point where people will no longer lend to government — they just won’t do it because of the interest rates that come in the bond markets of that country.
…What happens is that individuals need bailing out, and so the government comes out with a scheme to allow you to buy your house, get your further into debt; but eventually they can’t repay their interests because their mortgage becomes greater than their income. And so when wages are going down and their mortgages are going up, that is just skewing money toward the banking system. Eventually the people can’t afford it, so the banking system has some kind of collapse and correction; and because all money is created by a bank, and the bank is the economy, the government then [will] bail it out, and the government then goes to a central bank, and the central bank [will] bail out the government through quantitative easing or whatever it is; but eventually, financial engineering ends.
And when that is — I’ve got no idea how much more financial engineering they have, but eventually it does end.
… The money, the assets underneath this, have to come from somewhere at some point, and there’s only so poor you can make people. There’s only so much debt you can get people in. There comes a point when people just default on their debt. And once everyone defaults on their debt, the entire system collapses.”
And then take the Ashley Madison hack.
Fred Wilson wrote a blog post about it, endorsing the following:
…society needs to be accepting of and forgiving of transgressions like using a website to arrange extramarital affairs.
He added:
…all of us are in for having our deepest darkest secrets outed at some point. So let’s hope society becomes more forgiving over time. It’s going to have to.”
That’s saying it’s “normal” for people to be unethical, perverted, etc., and so as the internet tends to leak out many a secret, then we’ll just have to lower the bar of our morality.
The end result of that would ultimately be a degenerate society (as if it wasn’t that way enough as it is!)
A lot of what we consider “normal” is in fact a severe failure of the human condition.
It behooves us to pause long enough at times to at least recognize when a situation is in fact abnormal.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Forced vs spontaneous creativity

Sometimes the creative process comes out naturally and in volume but not at the right time; and if you’re like me and try to pick it up again later, it may have gone "cold" and not much is coming out.
I’m referring to any creativity: writing a blog post, a piece of music or anything else.
I’ve learned a little trick related to this.
When the creativity juices are flowing spontaneously, I stop what I’m doing long enough to write/dictate little summaries of them on my smartphone that I can go back to later and re-ignite; otherwise I more than likely run the risk of losing those little gems of creativity.
There are other times when my schedule forces me to create something whether I’m in the mood for it or not.
And I’ve got a trick for that too.
In those instances, I’ve learned to let any ideas flow out of my imagination as it will and simply note down or in some way record what the output is; and I make sure to not let my consciousness interfere with what is happening. In other words I stay “out if the way” and let the process take place.
What that does is it turns on the “creative factory” and puts me “in the zone” so that something good will emerge.
I wrote a song titled “It’s in Your Heart”, which is a good example of both processes.
The music came out as a burst of creativity and essentially wrote itself. It was quite surreal actually and it felt as though I was only the medium through which someone else or some other entity was composing the song.
But then I wanted to get on with it and get the lyrics done. The only thing  is I had a major case of writer’s block. Nothing was coming out and waiting forever for spontaneous creativity wasn’t an option. I took a pad and a pen and let any thought occur that wanted to flow out of my stream of consciousness. Before long the lyrics started to come out and it felt quite magical.

In the end, it is as if the song wrote itself, just as this blog post is right now.
At other times, I do a combination of the two techniques. For example I have no idea what the next blog post will be about and then one day I hear or I read something which sparks a thought, of which I record a summary in bullet points in under five minutes. I then let this “brew” in my head for a while, and when I have time and feel ready to create the blog post, I sit down and commit to write it on the spot. If I experience the infamous writer’s block, I just “get out of the way” and let any idea flow and see what emerges. Once the spark ignites, then it virtually writes itself.
Creativity can be harnessed much like the raw forces of nature, in my opinion.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Cultivating Karma

In February 2014, I asked Brad Feld to help me with a project by accepting to be interviewed by me via email so I could write a story titled, “What it’s like to live in Boulder, Colorado.”
I thought, “Nice guy, but I’ll never hear back from him -- he's just too busy, and he won't give me the time of day.”
A few days later, I went for a walk and listened to a few chapters of one of Brad’s books on Audible.
At the point when I was most deeply considering what he was saying in the book, I got an email from him that said, “There it is”. He had answered the questionaire.
It felt a little surreal actually, and I told him so. He replied with one word:
I even looked up the word in the dictionary to see if I was missing something.
In a separate incident, a few months ago, upon returning home from an organic / holistic grocery store I frequent, I noticed that the cashier forgot to charge me for a $13 piece of steak (which is already a great price for a grass fed striploin beef, if you ask me).
So the next week I went back and paid for it. The manager commented that it was an unusual behavior for me to have done so, but then she paused and said:
“Ah, Karma”.
And that’s what it is.
I’ve been like this since I was a teenager, but I didn’t have a word for it before.
I couldn’t explain to someone why it was important to me to fulfill a certain agreement, or pay back what I knew I owed that the other party forgot to bill me for, or leaving a note if I scratched someone’s car when they weren’t around.
I often got laughed at by friends, family and others.
Now I can say, “It’s good Karma”.
It’s something most people can relate to and appreciate.
And I can think of at least two occasions when I didn’t do what I knew was the right thing, and it felt wrong.
If you want a concrete framework for applying this principle, read Brad’s post, titled “Give Before You Get”.
In it, there are some gems, such as:
“In order to give before you get, adopt a philosophy of helping others without an expectation of what you are going to get back. It’s not altruistic — you do expect to get things in return — but you don’t set up the relationship to be a transactional one.”
“My goal is to live as happy an existence on this planet as I can and, by giving before I get, I maximize my chance of this.”
Today, I have received a phone call from another mason who lives in Tennessee and who felt stuck on a project and didn’t know who to turn to for advice. After doing a Google search, he came across some of my writings on the subject and managed to find my phone number and left me a message asking for my time so I could advise him.
Years ago, I would not have answered it — too busy, nothing in it for me, waste of time, etc. — in other words, a typical busy person’s way of dealing with a big enough ask when there’s too much on one's plate already.
I thought I would help him even if there clearly was nothing in it for me, and so I called him back.
Factually, I was following the give-before-you-get approach.
It meant a lot to him.
And that means a lot to me.
And he's going to pay it forward to someone else.
And so I feel the happiest when I work on cultivating my Karma, and very often, things just go smoothly when I do.

Monday, December 15, 2014

It turns out empathy is not a skill everyone possesses

Yesterday Brad Feld communicated on his blog that he and his wife Amy are huge believers in empathy, in response to also having watched the video I talked about in my last post.
But then, there was a comment from a software engineer / musician with a PhD degree —a clearly intelligent and thoughtful individual — which I though was intriguing. It said:
“I use the term ‘empathy’ when I have actual personal experience with whatever the other individual is going through. I don’t think there’s really any other justification to be able to claim that you are feeling or experiencing what they are. I use the term ‘sympathy’ otherwise.
I really don’t like this presentation of her views of these words. She’s adding semantic to the words which is overloading the definitions. And the presentation makes it sound like sympathy is bad and empathy is good. These are fairly precise terms and some of the implications she mentions are beyond their definitions. For example, she focuses on the ‘connection’ concept which really has nothing to do with sympathy vs empathy. I can sympathize with someone and still connect with them. Likewise, I can empathize with someone and not connect with them at all.”
To which I replied:
I actually get how you look at this, but I’d assert you’re possibly making assumptions about these definitions.
If, God forbid, you ended up with a terminal disease, for example, which statement would you rather hear, ‘Oh my God you poor thing’, or ‘Wow, f**k man, I really get it’?
That’s the difference.
You don’t need to be terminally ill or have come in close contact with a person who was in order to have empathy with someone who is in that situation, contrary to your logic.”
He then counter-replied with:
“Actually, you do IMHO. How can you have empathy for someone who is terminally ill unless you’re terminally ill yourself? I do not presume to know what or how someone is feeling unless I’ve been exposed to it myself. I consider that arrogant.
If I was terminally ill and someone claimed to have empathy for me, I’d be put off since they obviously don’t know what they are talking about. In your example, that would be engendered in me if they, like you say, said “I really get it.” I’d think, no, you don’t.”
At that point, I felt the urge to further engage, but I decided not to proceed as I felt it is not my place to over-engage on someone else’s blog. And so I decided to excogitate on it here — where only perhaps a few hundred people will read it :-)
BTW, my response to something like this would be, “Yes perhaps, I’ll never quite know what it’s like to be in your situation, I can only try to imagine, but it definitely seems like it is not what you had planned for yourself.” And then I’d allow them to share with me what’s it’s really like — if they were so inclined to share, and if it didn’t seem inappropriate, probably depending on how much prior connection I had with them.
At first I had assumed that the gentleman had misunderstood the definitions involved, but that doesn’t seem so much the case.
Referring to my all-time favorite dictionary, a reprint of 1828's ‘American Dictionary of the English Language” by Noah Webster — a most definitive work — the entry for “sympathize” says:
1.To have a common feeling, as of bodily pleasure or pain.
The mind will sympathize so much with the anguish and debility of the body , that it will be too distracted to fix itself in meditation. — Buckminster
2. To feel in consequence of what another feels; to be affected by feelings similar to those of another, in consequence of knowing the person to be thus affected.
We sympathize with our friends in distress; we feel some pain when we see them pained, or when we are informed of their distresses, even at a distance.
[It is generally and properly used of suffering and pain, and not of pleasure or joy. It may be sometimes used with greater latitude.]
Mr. Webster states that the word originates from a combination of two Greek words which meant “with passion”.
There is no entry in that dictionary for “empathize.”
So 186 years ago, there was only one word to express both concepts: “sympathy”.
And the divergence in meanings which has since ensued is not consistent across the several modern dictionaries I’ve checked.
So I did a little further research and came up with the following links to these relevant sites:
  1. Diffen
  2. Grammarist
  3. Vocabulary
  4. Dictionary
  5. Grammar-monster
In summary, “sympathy” offers several definitions, one of which for example, is “relation or harmony between bodies of such nature that vibrations in one cause sympathetic vibrations in the other or others”. (Webster New World).
Another one is “harmony of or agreement of feeling”. (Dictionary app)
But the one which universally applies to the “empathy vs sympathy” discussion has strong connotations to pity in some dictionaries, as in “pity or compassion felt for another’s trouble.
That is the very element in my mind which creates the need for an alternate word, i.e. “empathy”.
And that is also why sympathy is not a vibe I personally would want to be the recipient of, and why Dr BrenĂ© Brow’s YouTube video is so powerful that it has garnered 3,180,998 views at the time of writing.
Now, here are some interesting excerpts about “empathy” from the above links:
“[Empathy is] understanding what others are feeling because you have experienced it yourself or can put yourself in their shoes.”
“When you understand and feel another’s feelings for your yourself, you have empathy. It’s often spoken of as a character attribute that people have to varying degrees. For example, if hearing a tragic news story makes you feel almost as if the story concerned you personally, you have the ability to empathize.”
“Empathy was first used to describe how a viewer’s appreciation of art depends on her ability to project her personality onto the art. These days it applies to anything you can basically “project your personality” on. When you feel what someone else feels, that’s empathy.”
“If you’re feeling empathy, you’re in (em) the feeling. If it’s sympathy, you’re feeling sorry for someone.”
“The noun empathy denotes the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”
In short — and that is the important point IMO — empathy is a skill. It is a character attribute. It’s obviously not that hard to have empathy for someone if you have been in the same exact situation as them.
Where it gets more difficult, or even impossible for some — is to be able to put oneself in the shoes of another, while never having been in that particular situation yourself.
I find it pessimistic and fatalistic to believe that those who can’t feel empathy are stuck in that condition forever.
And so I’m going to postulate that empathizing can be an acquired skill; it’s a more hopeful view to behold.
I consider personally having the ability to have empathy, and I find that one of  the things that helps me is to constantly be asking, “What is it like to…?”
This is so much the case that I’ve created the website, centering around inspiring stories from real people, the titles of which, must absolutely all begin with one of only three options:
“What it’s like to …”
“What it was like to…”
What it will be like to…”
It’s baked in the interface. (And sorry, no app or mobile-responsive design in sight for now. It’s currently all web.)
Not all stories center around the human plight, the sorrows, the suffering, etc.
There are stories about pleasure, travel, various cities, etc.
But all stories tell what something is like.
The concept (if it’d ever take off in earnest), provides a platform to build empathy.
For example, this story completely touched me and made me want to go hug my wife afterwards. It gave me empathy for someone who loses their other half. In fact, I often think about this story.
Another story is about this 16 years old girl who will die unless she gets some very needed medical treatment which her family can’t afford.
Or the story about the child with autism.
And I could go on and on.
So only yesterday have I realized that empathy is not a skill that everyone possesses. I’m late to the party, I suppose.
Of course, it explains a lot about the world we live in, in retrospect :-)
I remain hopeful that the concept will continue to move to the forefront of our society, and that more and more people will fully develop the skill.
Trying to get an “Empathy Day” instituted around the world would be a worthwhile goal for someone brave enough for the task.
In parting, another comment on Brad’s blog yesterday said:
We don’t understand enough about Empathy. When it’s warranted? How is it helpful? How much of it is useful? How to deal with too much empathy? How to develop empathy skills? How to turn it on? How to turn is off? How to use it correctly?
My reply to that one was:
It’s not something you turn on and off like a piece of appliance. It’s a mindset you develop. It’s a continuous awareness of the possible state of mind others can potentially be found in. It’s a sensibility you acquire. It’s an asset you nurture. It’s not something you over-think, it’s something you feel your way through.”