Why You Should Have More Empathy – Wall Street Journal

“Sensitivity to other people’s emotions helps relationships; you can learn to be better at it,” the Journal says in the item by Elizabeth Bernstein.

In what seems like another life, back when I was going through marriage counseling, I learned that I needed to have more empathy to improve our relationship. Empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” Wikipedia says, “By the age of two, children normally begin to display the fundamental behaviors of empathy by having an emotional response that corresponds with another person.”

While my marriage didn’t survive, I did become much more sensitive about empathy and its value in all relationships. You can check out the link above to get the Journal’s take on empathy.

I mentioned empathy because it brought to mind a post I wrote several years ago which I am reblogging below.

Please feel free to share your views on this as I think it is an important subject.

Tony


What About Heroes Without Empathy?

I am asking about heroes without empathy because I really don’t know the answer. Over the past few years, we have been offered several heroes that have become hugely popular yet who do not seem to care at all about other people. They have no empathy.

Empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” Wikipedia says, “By the age of two, children normally begin to display the fundamental behaviors of empathy by having an emotional response that corresponds with another person.”

A hero is someone admired for achievements and noble qualities. Someone who demonstrates a lot of courage. The heroes below are over the top on achievements, but seem utterly lacking in empathy, a quality I consider a noble one.

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I like movies and TV and as a retired guy indulge in my share. I am thinking of two heroes of popular TV shows and one of books and movies.

Noome Rapace as Lisbeth Salander

Lisbeth Salander is The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest and Played with Fire in Stieg Larsson’s memorable trilogy. Abused as a child, Lisbeth forged a successful life for herself that included physical combat, computer hacking, bisexuality, higher mathematics and a general off the grid existence. She hijacked the focus of millions of fans worldwide, but appeared incapable of fathoming the feelings of the person seated across from her in a room. Lisbeth is the first of my three heroes.

Jim Parsons as Dr. Sheldon Cooper

The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper is the number two. A Cal-tech theoretical physicist, according to Wikipedia, “Sheldon exhibits a strict adherence to routine, a total lack of social skills, a tenuous understanding of irony, sarcasm, and humor, and a general lack of humility or empathy.”

Jim Parsons who plays Sheldon has won Primetime Emmys, a Golden Globe Award, A TCA Award and a Critics’ Choice Television Award for his work on the series.

Sheldon dominates his roommate, Leonard, with The Roommate Agreement, a multi-page document that Leonard signed to come aboard. It is heavily weighted in Sheldon’s favor. He has a similar agreement with his girlfriend, Amy Farrah Fowler, about which she laments in one episode that she didn’t consult with a lawyer before signing.

Unlike Lisbeth Salander’s crushingly dark character, Sheldon is a bright incredibly comic character whose antics propel The Big Bang Theory to the top of the sitcom charts every year.

Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson and Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock Holmes

The third hero is none other than Sherlock Holmes himself, in his latest incarnation on TV’s Elementary. Brought to life by Jonny Lee Miller, Holmes is a recovering drug addict with the lovely Lucy Liu as his ‘sober companion’ Dr. Joan Watson.

Before going further, I need to come clean that I am a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes, in the original film version, namely Basil Rathbone, which I saw in the movies as a child in the 1940’s. The gaunt Rathbone will forever be the prototype of Sherlock for me. Not incidentally, he made 14 movies in the 1930’s and 40’s. I also enjoyed Robert Downey, Jr’s take on the big screen in recent years.

Jonny Lee Miller’s Sherlock possesses every bit of the deductive prowess we expect from the character. As cast in present day New York, his love interest, Irene Adler, has already passed away and her death appears to be one of the demons Holmes is combating as a recovering drug addict.

He has a love/hate relationship with Watson whom he must tolerate or his father will stop allowing him to live rent free in his sumptuous New York apartment.

As is the case with Lisbeth Salander and Sheldon Cooper, Holmes has extraordinary intellect, but cannot fathom dealings with people in which he has to relate to them. He has demonstrated his crime-solving expertise and assumes that will carry the day. Captain Tobias Gregson, played by Aidan Quinn, spends time in every episode smoothing over Holmes’s roughshod way with suspects, including victim’s loved ones. The hard-working Watson also spends time in trying to smooth things over.

There have only been four Elementary shows so the body of work is thin compared with the previous examples, but the principle remains the same. The main character has no sensitivity to the feelings of others.

It seems also necessary to add that I am a huge fan of the three examples here. I read all of The Girl … books, watched all three of the Swedish film versions and own the DVDs. Ditto The Big Bang Theory. Too early for Elementary DVDs, but I plan to.

I have an appetite for heroes. Don’t we all? They embody some form(s) of human excellence. I admire them and am excited by their achievements. All of these characters embody excellence to an extreme degree. I just don’t get the disconnect when it comes to feeling for people.

While I view acts of kindness as food for the soul, I find myself hooked along with everyone else by these almost antisocial characters.

I remember as a child listening to the radio adventures of Superman, one of my first heroes, who was fighting for “truth, justice and the American Way.” Superman and his alter ego, Clark Kent, very clearly demonstrated feelings for others.

These current twisted characters must be filling a need in our collective lives. My tentative conclusion is that they are the best of a bad lot. Somewhere out there in the ether are heroes without this serious character flaw. I think we need them.

Tony

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