When Sonia Sotomayor was nominated to the Supreme Court of the United States, she was given the sobriquet of the Wise Latina.
“I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”
Why different, characterized as “richness,” would be synonymous as “better” was that her core value was her “empathy.” This was a curious view from below, as Justice Sotomayor was hardly too concerned with empathy for the downtrodden on the Second Circuit. But hey, she now had to sell herself, and this was her new, improved slogan.
em·pa·thy ˈempəTHē/ noun
the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
The key to empathy isn’t just the ability to understand the feelings of another, but to share them as well. The old aphorism is to “walk a mile in another man’s shoes.” So this is a good thing, but only to a point.
It’s essential to find empathy for the people you hope to serve, to teach, to work with. Without it, you can’t find the place they’re stuck, you can’t help them move in the direction they seek to go.
But it’s entirely possible that your empathy will lead to a moment where you need to say ‘no’.
“I just bought a new car from you, drove it for a thousand miles, but now, I’ve broken my arm in a fall and I won’t be able to drive for a while. Can I please have a full refund?”
Of course, this is a selfish request. Your dealership can’t survive if buying a car is a slightly more complicated version of renting one for free.
This may not be the best analogy, since a broken arm is neither a big deal nor precludes driving a new car, and certainly car dealers aren’t high on anyone’s list of sympathetic characters, but it’s what Seth Godin chose to make his point. Who am I to question a marketing guru?
Yes, you can empathize or even sympathize with this customer’s plight. A broken arm is bad enough, but the additional pain of seeing a car you can’t drive every day… that’s worse.
But empathy doesn’t require you to reach into your pocket because the customer has rewritten the terms of the deal and is undermining the business you’ve built to serve others.
Assuming Mr. Broken Arm is a sufficiently sad story to bring a tear to your eye, so what? You sold him a car, not a guarantee of a happy life.
Instead, it means that you can see his pain and that you’re completely okay with this person not buying from you again. That through the mist of pain and percocet, it’s entirely possible that he doesn’t have the reserves to be empathic to you, that he can’t see it through your eyes. And you probably can’t force him to.
Despite this fairly poor analogy, Godin finally makes an overarching point, that empathy isn’t a one-way street. The problem we face is that it’s viewed that way by those dedicated to a cause. They’ve chosen sides, with theirs called the vulnerable and marginalized and the other called the privileged, and they’ve rationalized why theirs deserves empathy while they have none to give. And there is nothing you can say to the contrary.
So empathy leads to, “I hear you, I see you, and if you need to walk away, we’ll understand. We hope you’ll see it the way we do one day, but right now, I can’t solve your problem.”
The presumption on the side of the marginalized is that no one who doesn’t share their vision of empathy can possibly “hear you, see you,” because if they did, they would certainly agree. There is no other view of life that is decent and right but theirs, and the only possible explanation for dispute is that you’re stupid or evil. Surely if you were smart and good, you would be them for there is no other smart and good possibility.
Leaving the car dealership behind, this scenario plays out regularly for criminal defense lawyers, because we are constantly faced with individuals who seek out services who fit the characteristics of vulnerable and marginalized. We defend the poor, the mentally ill, and far too often the black and brown against the blue. Sure, we also defend the occasional well-to-do defendants, but nobody really wants to talk about that guy as he ruins the narrative.
This puts many lawyers into a position of confusion, the irreconcilable status of wanting to serve those in need because that’s why they’ve chosen defense as their niche. Indeed, many have decided to enter the law for the sake of serving others. A noble purpose.
But then, the bills come due. Your landlord wants rent, and that iPhone won’t pay for itself. The kids get hungry every day and look to you with sad eyes to put food on the table. You might want a Ferrari in your secret dreams, but you still need to pay the monthly vig on the Kia. Even the subway turnstyle makes demand of you every time you have to go to court.
Your client has suffered the degradations of a prejudiced society, denied a decent education and targeted by police for his hue. He came to you in need, promising to pay your modest fees and assuring you that he could. He would.
But when the time came, it turned out that no unicorn appeared at his door bearing a wad of cash, and this “unanticipated” stroke of misfortune makes it impossible for him to keep his word. He feels badly, but not too badly, since it’s not really his fault that society treats him so poorly. And you’re just a greedy lawyer, sucking the life out of poor people who will never enjoy your vast wealth and prestige.
Where is your empathy?
Empathy has become an aphrodisiac for the mindless, the simplistic, who refuse to understand how society fits together. If car dealers can’t make a profit off the sale of their cars, they close their doors. They aren’t a charity, and their children want to eat just like yours. And just like the guy with the broken arm. And just like your clients. You aren’t a charity either, and that becomes clear when the bills arrive and your landlord doesn’t tear up when you tell him of your client’s unanticipated misfortune.
Empathy is a good thing, and something we should all possess in abundance. But not only for one side, regardless of what conspiracy theories were forced into our heads. If empathy compels you to be a doormat, or demand others to be so, then you don’t truly grasp its meaning.
Everyone is worthy of empathy, from the privileged to the marginalized. But irrational empathy, the one-way street of caring only for your favored identities at the expense of the disfavored, won’t work. We all survive together. All our kids need to eat. If you can’t find empathy for the other person’s children, there will be none for yours.