Tuesday, August 20, 2013

On Elephants and Empathy

I was summoned for jury duty a few weeks ago.  The jury selection process was interesting in itself--the prosecutor and defense attorney both asked questions to determine if we could be fair and impartial or if we had anything in our backgrounds that might make us biased for or against one side or the other.  I had to smile at some of the answers given by my fellow potential jurors,  wondering if they were purposely answering in such a way to get dismissed or if they were just being honest (if misinformed).  A few thought that they could vote "undecided" even at the end of jury deliberations, several almost proudly told of their own prior arrests, one or two recounted times that they or a friend had beaten someone up (this was an assault case).  Still, eventually, a jury was selected and we began.  The case involved one man hitting another man with a 2x4.  The defendant claimed self defense; the state claimed that the other person was hit, out of the blue,  for no reason.  Our job was to decide if the prosecution proved assault beyond a reasonable doubt. 

None of the witnesses saw the entire event.  Some heard noise and looked out the window to catch the middle of the altercation. Some saw the action as one man picked up a 2x4,  but not what prompted him to do so. Some saw what was happening on one side of the yard or the other; some saw the aftermath. No one could tell us exactly what happened from beginning to end.  In jury deliberations, I remarked that it reminded me of the story of the blind men and the elephant.  The short version goes like this: six blind men are told to examine an elephant and describe it.  Each of them feels a different part of the elephant so their descriptions vary wildly--it's a tree, a snake, a wall, a fan, a rope, a spear.  In the end, it's true that they are all partly correct in their descriptions but no one has the whole picture.  It's not that anyone is lying or purposely misleading anyone else, but all are speaking from their own perspectives and can't see what the others are experiencing.

It seems that many of us go through life this way. We reinforce our worldview based on our own visions and experiences and have a hard time seeing things through the eyes of others.  Although I try to be open minded, I know that I can be pretty stubborn when it comes to certain beliefs and opinions--my own little piece of the elephant is very important to me. Please don't tell me it's a rope when it is very clearly a fan!

In the courtroom, we were seeking truth and justice, deciding which version of the story was most likely to be true, or at least which was most believable. But in life we have the opportunity every day  to put ourselves in the experience of others and see what they see,  if we can only step away from our own vision for a moment. What kind of world would we create if we could all take the perspective of others once in awhile? Can we imagine the tree instead of the rope, trade the wall for a snake and see what it's like?

Check out this very cool video from Roman Krznaric (and RSA Animate) as he talks about empathy and "outrospection" as forces for social change.   He also has a website and blog here.     I think he's onto something.

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