Posts Tagged ‘Empathy’

I came across this post from back in 2011 that was about how empathy was in short supply back then. Things certainly haven’t changed. If anything, empathy is an even rarer bird to see these days. I wanted to replay this post for the story of my fellow co-worker from years ago who I see as my personal symbol for how the poorest among us need our assistance.

But I also wanted to play this Woody Guthrie song again with the hope that there is indeed a better world a-comin’ soon. Listening to it, I wish that we could have a do-over, could go back to points in our past before the powers-that-be had yet to learn how to manipulate and divide the less informed among us. The time of the union movement was a point where the working masses were a powerful voice in our political landscape, one that built a foundation that gave many an opportunity to move beyond the limitations set upon them by their place in society.

It’s power and success made it a target and in the decades since, corporate power has sought to divide and destroy. Destroying the idea of the union, the idea of one person watching out for the other, was the mission. Empathy became a thing that the common man began to believe was a thing he could not afford. 

It seems on may of these days that they have achieved their mission. But I like to believe there is still an opportunity, that empathy and selflessness can overcome greed and selfishness. I might be foolish to think that but I cannot accept that we have lost the ability to see ourselves in others.

From December of 2011:

Woody and His Weapon of Choice

A couple of things stuck out recently for me when following the mass media. On The Daily Show, comedy writer Merrill Markoe appeared this week and during her interview made the statement that there are now so many socially acceptable ways to exhibit a pathological lack of empathy. I knew this  already but it was so succinctly put that it stuck in my mind, especially when listening to the GOP presidential candidates such as Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich basically attack the poor in recent appearances, blaming the poor’s own lack of initiative for their condition.

I do not disagree that there are ways for some to dig out from the depths of poverty. But for some it is a pit that can’t be escaped. I often think of a man I worked with for a number of years at the Perkin’s Restaurant where I worked when I first started painting. He was a few years older than me which put him around forty years old at the time.

He worked as a dishwasher and busboy making around six dollars an hour. I can’t remember what the minimum wage was at the time since I was a waiter and was only paid $2.35 per hour. This fellow’s wife was ill with some sort of chronic disease and it was constant struggle to stay afloat without assistance for their medical bills. To me, he remains the face of the working poor.

Now this man had no escape routes in his life. He had little education and it was painfully obvious. His prospects for doing a lot better than his current position were slim, at best. The jobs that once might have paid more in the factories and plants of our area were gone and probably weren’t coming back anytime soon. He couldn’t leave. He didn’t know where to go and if he did, he couldn’t afford to move what little he did have. He made a few extra dollars helping a friend pick junk but he was unfortunately near the top of his potential. This was a man who worked hard and did the right things, all that he knew, but still found himself at the very bottom.

He deserves our empathy. He deserves a hand extended.

Instead he and many thousands, maybe many millions, like him are categorized as merely lazy slackers who suck on the public teat. The hubris displayed by these politicians and  their failure to see the singular humanity of these people makes me angry. They anxiously seek to protect the wealthiest among us whose fortunes have been made possible by the blood and sweat of people like this dishwasher, who have been both the primary workers and customers for their businesses. Yet do they feel a tinge of empathy for anyone other than the so-called job-creators?

I don’t think so. At least, it’s not something they dare to exhibit in public. And if they display any empathy, it is because they seek to use these folks as pawns to be played for their own political benefit.

Maybe I’m wrong in talking about such things here. Maybe I should stick with art. I don’t care. Too many of us have remained silent and on the sidelines or have started to buy into that Ayn Rand-ish tenet that selfishness is a virtue that these people spout at every turn, as though it somehow acts as justification for their amoral activity. Maybe someone will not like what I say here and suddenly find my work not to their liking.

So be it. I have to believe that people who find something in my work  also have high capacities for empathy towards others. Those are the people for whom I want to paint. People who believe there’s a better world a-coming, as Woody Guthrie sang in his song many years ago. When I see how forcefully he stood up for his beliefs and the rights of others, I am ashamed at how little I have done myself.  Here’s his song:

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empathyAfter reading a recent Op-Ed piece in the NY Times from psychologist Daniel Goleman provocatively titled Rich People Just Care Less, which puts forward a theory that some of the problems caused by the growing inequality between the upper and lower classes may be the result of a lack of empathy by those in power, I was going to write once again about the the apparent empathy deficit in this world.  But this as far as I can go with it today.  It seems obvious to me that no amount of logic or evidence or words of shame can sway the actions of those lacking in empathy.  Need we  look any further for evidence than the current stalemate in Washington or the case now before the Supreme Court that will effectively take off all limits on campaign donations, further squelching the voice of the least powerful and most vulnerable?

No, I am not in the mood to go on with this today.  I throw up my hands and say “So what!”

Let’s listen to some music that fits the title.  Here’s one of my favorites, the great Chet Baker from 1964 with his version of the Miles Davis classic, So What.  Good music to chill to.




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“I told you once that I was searching for the nature of evil. I think I’ve come close to defining it: a lack of empathy. It’s the one characteristic that connects all the defendants. A genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow man. Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.”

 – Gustav M. Gilbert, prison psychologist at Spandau prison,  where Nazi war crimes defendants were held, 1945


I know that the quote above sounds pretty dark for a character trait that most people would recognize as being positive but it has haunted me for some time.  Empathy is something I take for granted as being a large part of everyone’s psyche and to think that there are are large segments of the population without the ability or the willingness to put themselves in others’ shoes or to imagine how the world looks through others’ eyes was disturbing to my simplistic worldview. 

 Disturbing , yes.  Surprising, no.  There was always ample evidence of a lack of empathy in the world and we have often exhibited a large capacity for cruelty and selfishness.   Just glimpse through history or read the newspapers on any given day.  There are scores of examples.

So I am not surprised so much as I am disheartened, especially when I came across a report that was released last year concerning a study from the University of Michigan that  surveyed over 14,000 college students over a thirty year timespan, beginning in 1979.  They were examining the degrees of empathy and found that over this timeframe that empathy had decreased severely among students, with the most dramatic drop taking place in the last ten years.  Today’s college student is likely to be 40% less empathetic than  students from 20 or 30 years ago.  They are less likely to consider how they would feel in someone else’s situation, less likely to have concerns for others’ problems  and less likely to feel pity for those being treated unfairly.

I know that this is only a study and may have large flaws in it so I am taking this with a grain of salt.  But to contemplate those numbers and what it may mean for us as a society is a scary thing.  Perhaps we need some sort of emapthy training, something that shows the young how to walk in the shoes of others, that explains how the suffering of one is the suffering of all.  I don’t know.  I just know that if these numbers are vaguely representative of the true nature of our youth then we are in for some tough days ahead.

Sorry for being so downbeat especially at a time when the world needs positive reinforcement.  Maybe I’m using this as scare tactic.  Whatever the case, we need to close the empathy deficit.  You can take the U. of Mich’s Empathy Test and see how you stack up against the numbers.  There are also several good articles  online that go further on the results of this study.

For those of you with a bit of empathy here are the current totals on the ongoing auction:

#1 Full Silence-- Current High Bid $650

#2- Seems Like a New Sun - Current High Bid $800

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Empathy=Hipocrisy TomTomorrowI’ve been thinking lately, as I’ve been painting, about words that have big concepts behind them.  Words like reverence, devotion and empathy.

Empathy is a word that always comes back to me when I think of the chasm between left and right in this country.  I think that empathy is the quality, more than any other,  that really defines and divides both sides.

The right views empathy as a weakness, an admission that one can’t do for themselves and needs help.  Those who are without and need help obviously are out to take what the right has toiled to keep to themselves.  These people deserve only pity.  Not empathy, because how can we empathize with situations that we would never allow ourselves to be in?

The left has a large tent of empathy, looking out for everyone who has ever been down and needs a hand up, perhaps to a fault.  They have a sense of fair play that sometime opens them to being conned by those who would play upon their willingness to help.  They even sometimes treat their adversaries with empathy, giving them the benefit of their own doubt at times, allowing the opposition to hinder and sabotage even as they proclaim their desire for unity.

I know this is over-simplification to the nth degree and, god knows, I could be way wrong here.  But to me it’s just an illustration of how deep the chasm between these two sides remains and how incompatible their mindsets are.  This simple imbalance of a single human virtue on both sides makes any dialogue almost impossible and with every passing day we can see this in the news coming out of our capital.

Solutions?  I don’t know.  Perhaps if those on the left can absorb some of that self-righteous anger that has long been the province of the right and just swallow their empathy for a short time, something may be accomplished.  But until that improbable moment occurs, it’ll be the status quo.  Over and over again.

Thanks to Tom Tomorrow and his website for the cartoon.  I really like his style.


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The New Phoenix

dsc_0349-webI am calling this painting, for now at least, The New Phoenix.  It’s a new piece and is an extension of what I term my obsessionist work.  This is a 30″ X 40″ canvas and really seems to have a glowing vibration in the light.  

It also has the depth into the picture plane that I feel is the difference between effective and less effective paintings, particularly my own.  I’ve been looking at this piece for several days and feel that it’s a very strong example of one of my iconic images.  It has a bold look with great contrasts yet still has the calmness and quiet that I want in my work.  Strong yet thoughtful…

This piece has a certain degree of empathy that I find attractive.  I can’t quite describe what mean or how I see it- just a feeling I see in this painting.  Empathy is an important term for me, in my work and in many aspects of my life.  I want to write more about it at some point not because I want to bare some part of my self but because as a whole I think empathy is lacking in many of our lives.

But today I don’t want to go any deeper into that subject.  I just want to look at this painting a bit more before it goes out into the world alone…

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