A Theory of Relativity

Confession: the other day I saw a video of an athlete saying how hard their 2017 was after they accepted an "athlete of the year" award.

I rolled my eyes.

A response for which I am not proud of at all. 

Because typically, I possess atypical levels of empathy for others.

But I was caught up in how hard MY year was so I was temporarily blinded by the idea that someone else would/could think that their year was difficult too.

Perception is reality.

Reality is relative.

Which leads me to my next point.

We (especially in the United States) are living in interesting times (to put it nicely) most of us would qualify this time as difficult for an entire variety of reasons.

And that's the problem. 

We all have some type of struggle, some sort of situation or circumstance that isn't ideal...

So we end up seeing other peoples' struggles through the lenses of our own. 

Forgetting that our experiences...

Although often shared...

Are also interpreted individually... 


When US Gymnast Aly Raisman spoke up and said she had been sexually assaulted by the team doctor her teammate, Gabby Douglass' initial reaction was to question how women dress and carry themselves, before eventually saying #metoo.

Where was her empathy in her initial reaction? Could it be that she viewed Aly's story, through the prism of her own story and therefore could not provide Aly the support she needed?

How many times has someone come to you with a problem and your first reaction is to say something like, "oh yea...I've experienced that too." And you launch into your own story. Completely, and most likely unwittingly missing an opportunity to hear, listen, and empathize with the other person.

Joyner Lucas' viral video, "I'm not racist" was an attempt at showcasing empathy. Two people of different races listening to the unique perspective of the other. Of course, it's a music video and there's only so much ground you can cover, but listening is just step one of empathy. Getting to a place of understanding is step two and the most critical.

There's a reason why Empathy isn't a movement or a viral hashtag on its own (though it needs to be). I just recently read some interesting research out of Harvard University about why more people don't have or exercise empathy.

  • It's exhausting: empathy is you giving of yourself and most likely you're not getting any or enough of it in return to replenish yourself.
  • It's Zero-Sum: You can run out of Empathy. And it takes a little bit to replenish it. Example: Coaches that use their cache of empathy on relating to their athletes and colleagues during the day are more likely to get on Facebook later and go off, or are too exhausted to give much more than their physical presence in their relationships. True in any profession really, but especially the service industries.
  • It can cause lapses in judgment: extreme loyalty to "insiders" can force a person to try to empathize and rationalize otherwise unethical behavior. Example: there are people who would never be terrorists themselves "but can see why someone would" blow up a market or GOP members who found a way to be okay with voting for Moore because he's republican rather than being disgusted with the allegations against him. Or Democrats voting against something that is wanted or helpful because a republican wrote it. Sometimes empathy is what stops us from "whistle blowing" or speaking up when we should. I'm guilty of this last part even now.
  • Empathy can also be biased: empathy is more easily given to people in our peer groups, our workplace, social circles, and less so to "outsiders" because empathy can run out. And because it runs out, you're more likely to prioritize exercising empathy to those close to you. So there's very little left for those outside of that circle. And most of the time those "outsiders" are exactly the ones who need it, from you. Of course the inverse is also a phenomena, there are people who have zero empathy for their own family and seemingly endless wells of empathy for other people. Either way, it's still biased.

Things on this planet aren't going to get much better until we understand one of the factors I believe is helping to keep us in this depressing status quo.

It's not so much world governments' are seemingly doing their own thing independent of the majority of the people they are sworn to represent...

It's more about what you and I are doing...

How we're treating each other...

How we all treat complete strangers.

The idea of lessening racial tensions is nice, but how many of us actually get out and interact with people unlike us on a regular basis?

How many people consider themselves ambassadors of and for their race? And act accordingly? Are we giving each other a reason to expect anything but tension?

How many of us drive by homeless people and think that any money we give them will immediately go towards drugs and alcohol, or feel like we're two seconds away from being scammed rather than thinking about all the different scenarios that could lead one to begging for money on the street, dodging cars, getting rained on, honked at, screamed at, spit on, and even peed on.

It's about how we treat the environment around us, right here where we live. 

We all can get behind saving the oceans, but how many of us are actually recycling at home? How many of us step over litter in our own neighborhoods?

Empathy runs out. 

When I was watching that video of the athlete talking about her "hard" year I was depleted.

I had just chosen and purchased books and ebooks for my next book club's selection.

I had just gotten off the phone with my attorney about a hearing in my (still) pending divorce.

I had just gotten home from a long day at the training center.

I was hungry.

I was tired.

Sitting in an empty house with all the lights off.

Thinking about what this Christmas would feel like now.

Wondering if I would get sad or find it depressing at some point.

I had zero empathy.

And you know what you should do in moments like these?

You should shut up.

Log off your computer.

Close Facebook, get off Twitter.

Put down your phone.

And take a time out.

And go do something for you. 

Something that recharges, replenishes, and restores you.

Because if you don't take care of you...

You can't take care of us...

And that's a problem.

One that should be relatively simple to address. 

Promise me you'll try.

nick steadman