I was an ROTC grad from college. So I got my 2nd Lt. bars and had to report for two years active duty within a year of graduation. I was assigned to the U.S. Army Artillery so my first stop was at Fort Sill in Lawton, Oklahoma for the Officer’s basic artillery course. I got there about the first of May and spent most of the summer there. The Fort Sill assignment was a temporary duty (TDY) assignment so none of the approximately 20 in the class had their wives with them. We had some free time on the week-ends, but there is not much to do in Lawton, Oklahoma. So some of us on Saturday night ended up in the bar of the local Ramada Inn. The Ramada Inn was one of the better hotels in Lawton at the time and the bar keep was a young, nice looking, single lady. The first two or three week-ends a group of us spent two or thee hours there drinking and talking before. After that we decided it would be smarter to go to a movie first rather than sitting and drinking all night. But it was 1964 – an election year and on those first Saturday nights the conversation naturally turned to politics.
Included in our class was a 1st Lt. Marine officer from a marine base in California. He had been assigned to an artillery unit, but had never had Artillery training and the Fort Sill class was the one for the Marines as well as the Army officers. Our class had some reasonably technical aspects. We learned about ballistics theory and how to aim a gun to hit things that you could not see. Those subjects involved some physics, map reading, math, and trigonometry. In class this Marine Lt. had impressed me as one of the smarter, more intelligent officers in our group. But in the bar on Saturday night, it became obvious pretty quickly that we were on the opposite sides of the political spectrum. We disagreed on most political issues. I thought my positions were pretty logical and defensible so how could this guy who seemed so intelligent come up with positions that seemed to me to be irrational? We had the time and my curiosity got the better of me, so I decided to ask him how he got to those positions. So I began with the “why do you think that” questions. I was not arguing with him, I was merely trying to understand his logic. The first “why” questions led to a 2nd round of “why” questions. It probably took several hours (and maybe a couple of Saturday nights in the bar) but we finally got back to things that he had experienced growing up. He grew up in Philadelphia, Penn. in a neighborhood of factory workers – laborers and maybe Union members. I grew up in a small town in central Florida (less than 10,000 people). We did not have any factories, much less factory workers. The population was mostly farmers, ranchers, and shop-keepers. It was two totally different environments and our “beginning ideas” were based considerably on what we had learned growing up in those environments? Who’s beginning assumptions best fit the whole country at large? The first thing I learned at that point was that neither of us could prove in any absolute sense that our “beginning ideas” were right for the country at large. The second thing I learned was that given his beginning ideas, his political conclusions in 1964 were perfectly logical. I did not change my opinions, but I understood and respected his. He was as smart as I thought he was and we remained friends.
After the Army, I returned to Graduate Business School where my area of concentration was “management”. In Human Resources management classes they talked about building productive relationships and communications. There was a term – “active listening” – that a writer used in a 1950’s book that described a way to listen that would help you understand how he was seeing things, and let him know that you were listening and understanding. This was considered important to building relationships. Later in his best-selling management book, Stephen Covey’s habit #5 was “Seek First to Understand” then to be understood. The idea of both of these was that actually listening to understand another person was good for building relationships even if you did not agree with what he was saying. People appreciate the effort to be understood even without agreement. In graduate school I learned a word for this was “empathy”. I’d never heard the word before, but I was assured that it was different from sympathy. Sympathy meant that you felt sorry for someone who had a problem. “Empathy” meant simply being able and taking the time to understand another person, and how he/she saw the world. Even though they may not have to have something to feel sorry for, everyone appreciates being undertood. Today’s word that one hears a lot is compassion. My dictionary defines “compassion” as understanding someone who has a problem with an intent to help. My experience with my Marine friend in the service did not involve anything that either one of us had to feel sorry for. But the understanding helped our relationship even though we did not find a lot to agree on. In Graduate School in the early 70’s, I thought that was “empathy”. I have repeated “seeking to understand” many times since then with many different people and it has helped our relationship. I have also learned much even though I did not always agree with the other persons thoughts. The learning experience Stephen Covey said often leads to a third alternative that works for both of you that neither one of you would have thought about before. A third alternative may be better than either of you would have thought of independently. In other cases when we did not need a 3rd alternative and even though we did not agree, I may have modified my thinking because I’ve learned something new.
But apparently the definition of “empathy” has changed in the last few decades to mean what has sometimes been called “emotional empathy” which means feeling someones “suffering” without knowing any logical history or rationale for how or why they got to the point of suffering. Dr. Paul Bloom, a Professor of Psychology at Yale University has recently published a book titled “Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion“. Apparently the term has been corrupted by politicians and the media who either have not been true to the definition that I learned or are trying to sound like they care about people of all stripes.
I would agree with his argument for rational compassion. But with the people that we have in this country today with different religious backgrounds and different countries of national origin, we need better understanding between and among us. I had a talented young man of Mexican decent tell a group that he was speaking to that we are all shaped by the beliefs and practices that we grew up with. He is not suffering. He is successful at what he does like my Marine friend at Fort Sill. But we all need understanding and some knowledge of where other people are coming from. Understanding doesn’t necessarily mean agreement, but it helps relationships even if no one is suffering. I think we need a word for that – empathy seems to have been corrupted, sympathy and compassion imply that someone is suffering. Understanding is a broad term that applies to much more than just human relationships. But we need to encourage meaningful dialogue of people of different backgrounds and relationships even though they don’t need sympathy or compassion. We can all learn from that and it will bring us closer together even though we may not always agree.