Tuesday, May 21, 2024

How Our Capacity To Show Empathy Increases With Age

I remember when I was a kid watching a Disney movie with my family about a lost dog. I sat there with all the faux sophistication of a 17-year-old and rolled my eyes about how sappy the movie was. Somewhere off to my left, I heard my father sniff. Now, it wasn’t allergy season when this happened and even if it was, my father doesn’t have allergies. I thought to myself, “Is dad actually choked up?” Sure enough, I looked his way and he was looking at the ceiling with his eyes wide open trying not to wipe away a tear. He was a bit overwhelmed with empathy for the characters in the story.

I think of my dad as a tough guy who has frequently leapt over difficulty in a single bound. I was appalled. “Come on, dad!” I thought. “How can you be moved by this?”

Empathy is an interesting thing. Some people have a lot of it, some of us do not. However, I think that as we get older, our level of empathy increases. Why?

Judging other people is a piece of cake when we haven’t had much in the way of life experience. It’s easy to look at someone in the street who is having a rough time and think, “Well, it’s their own damn fault.” But when we’ve had adventures both good and bad, we can see many points of view.

As Shakespeare said (and I’m paraphrasing wildly). “We play many roles.” Once we’ve played those roles, we understand them. When we’re younger, our roles were much more limited. Some of mine were “12-year-old with a lot of Christmas presents” and “fortunate teenager who drives a car” and even “young man caught skinny dipping.” Often, it’s not until we’re older that we play such roles as “twenty-something who struggles to buy food” or “40-year-old who suffers loss.” Those roles, especially the tougher ones, help us to appreciate what others are going through.

“I think having more empathy is a good thing because it moves us away from the ‘us and them’ paradigm that is really kicking the crap out of the world today.”

As we age, we have loved, we have lost, we have had dreams come true and we have seen them shattered. We have received terrible phone calls at 3 am and we have gotten hugs that have helped us through the toughest of days. What does all that do? It shapes us. When we see someone in a similar situation, I like to think we judge less. We’re a lot less likely to say, “Damn, how could they be so stupid,” or “They should have known there was a tornado warning” to “That’s terrible! How can we help?”

There is a lot about aging that I find frustrating. There are many things that are challenging and vexing, but I think having more empathy is a good thing because it moves us away from the “us and them” paradigm that is really kicking the crap out of the world today. If getting older means we have more understanding for each other, if it means we have a bit more patience and can see things from another’s point of view, and consequently we’re a bit more generous, then I am all for it.

Recently, I was hanging out with my nephews. I told them a bunch of stories that I hoped would reinforce my tough guy persona. Then we all sat on the couch and watched a movie. Against all odds, an adorable dog found its way home and jumped into its owner’s arms. A lump rose in my throat, I opened my eyes as wide as I could and looked at the ceiling and, for a brief moment, I think I understood my dad.


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