The Problem with Empathy

A few days after reading Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassionby Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, I was stopped in Washington, D.C., traffic.  A disheveled, crippled man made his way between the traffic lanes past my car with a hand-written cardboard sign identifying himself as a disabled veteran needing money.   In that brief moment I had to make a decision.

Occasionally I give to those who ask without thinking much about it. This time I didn’t. I had just read Bloom’s book and thought of shelters and programs in the city to assist homeless disabled veterans like this man.  It was a head vs. heart moment.   Following Bloom’s advice, I went with my head.

My unpredictable responses to pan-handlers is the dilemma Bloom describes in Against Empathy, as he argues for rational compassion.  For many well-intentioned people empathy is a natural response, an emotion defined by Bloom as “the act of feeling what you believe other people feel – experiencing what they experience.”

Rational compassion, on the other hand he defines as understanding and responding to human suffering wherever it exists, in Bloom’s words: “simply caring for people and wanting them to thrive.”

Citing many studies Bloom seeks to prove that while emotions may motivate us to do good, empathy may be, and often is counterproductive, if not harmful.

At that red light I wondered if by giving to the man in the traffic I would be encouraging others to beg on the street rather than take advantage of the comprehensive programs to help homeless, destitute people?   I helped start such a program in Washington for that purpose, and I continue to support the Community of Hope and other compassionate ministries around the world.   I think that is a better way to give.

Early in the book, Bloom recognizes that arguing against empathy is a hard sell.   He notes over 1,500 books listed on Amazon with empathy in the title.     Yet as he demonstrates, empathy, which by definition is selective and biased, leads us to overlook greater needs.

For example, the outpouring of response to the horrific massacre of twenty children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School.   A warehouse was needed to store all the unneeded and unwanted toys sent to the surviving children along with thousands of dollars to an otherwise wealthy neighborhood.   While, as Bloom points out, few of us are aware that more African-American children are murdered every year in Chicago than were killed at Sandy Hook.

Empathy “muddles our judgment,” the Yale News review observed.   “We are at our best,’ it said, “when we are smart enough not to rely upon it, but to draw instead upon a more distanced compassion.”

Does empathy make us better people and the world a better place?   Not necessarily, however well intentioned we might be to walk in someone else’s shoes.


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On Nurturing Our Networks

A life-long friend called last week because he had not heard from me in more than a month. Given our ages, (this is my 80th year – more about that later) he was concerned that perhaps something unfortunate had happened to me.

His call reminded me that I live within a circle of family and friends who care about one another.

As I age I am often reminded of a line from the Midshipmen’s Prayer at the U.S. Naval Academy, ‘protect those in whose love I live.’   That’s a wonderful phrase – ‘those in whose love I live.’ I have lived there all my life.

I owe a lot to this personal network. Keeping in touch is essential.   I don’t have to contact all of them every week or every month, but at least occasionally just to let them know that I care as much about them as they do about me.

Our networks extend beyond this inner circle.

A few months ago I talked with a friend about his career.   He was frustrated to the point of discouragement with his leadership role.   He had folded into himself and couldn’t see a way forward or out.   I asked if he had shared any of this with his network of friends and associates.   He had not.   I suggested that he call a few of the people he knew and trusted.   Let them know that he was thinking about a career change.

We recently talked again. He was encouraged after making a few calls and discovering that he had a network of people willing to discuss his ideas for new directions.   Doors he didn’t know existed opened. Who knows what the future holds but now he knows that he is surrounded and supported by a network of friends who care about one another.

In my conversations with leaders the topic often turns to ‘nurturing your network’ – what that means and how to do it.   It is especially important when approaching retirement when one leaves the natural network of an organization.

Our social networks begin early and remain throughout our lives, if we nurture them.

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How Optimistic Are You For 2017?

I’ve been listening to conversations and asking the question.

Some are cautiously optimistic; others pessimistic, a few seem to be hunkering down waiting for the apocalypse.

Late in 2016, Thomas Friedman published his most extensive book yet – Thank You For Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations.

I began reading the book wondering about the source of his optimism.   Why does he believe we can thrive going forward?

Friedman describes his book as “one giant column” – 450 pages – about how our lives are being affected by three global changes, accelerating all at once: technology (Moore’s Law), globalization (the Market) and climate change (Mother Nature).

All of them are as threatening as they may be promising.

The title Thank You For Being Late is a comment Friedman made to a guest who showed up late for a breakfast appointment. Rather than an inconvenience he saw it as an opportunity to pause for what he calls ‘moral reflection’ in his otherwise unpredictable fast paced world.   Something he recommends we all do, faced as we are by inevitable disruptive changes in our lives.


The future of computer technology and Internet communication is a mixed blessing.   AI (artificial intelligence) will go beyond winning at Jeopardy, making decisions better than humans.   Robots will take over most manufacturing jobs. For better or worse social media can connect everyone on the planet.   Big Data knows more about us than we know ourselves.   Cyber warfare will be the international conflict of the future among nations.


Globalization is rapidly replacing national boundaries.   We can’t build walls high enough to keep the world at bay.   Everything we buy, the news we watch, our financial security is affected by uncontrollable events from beyond our boarders.

Climate Change

The planet earth’s biosphere, home for over 7 billion people, is deteriorating as we continue to fowl our own nest. Mother Nature, the whole global ecosystem, is being reshaped.

Friedman is not optimistic that these three accelerations, on their own, will help us ‘thrive.’  He warns that without intervention, technology, globalization and climate change are likely to cause more harm than good.

We are, he writes,

‘at a fork in the road where one of us could kill all of us or all of us could fix everything if we really decided to do so.’

He is confident that we can thrive since we have the capacity to innovate and adapt whatever the circumstances.

Beyond that we need what he calls a moral revolution, a revolution as surprisingly simple as it is difficult – a revolution from self-interest to the collective good initiated at a very personal level.

‘When I think of this challenge on a global scale, my own short prescription is that we need to find a way to get more people to practice the Golden Rule.’

Therein is Friedman’s source of optimism – not from the mega changes disrupting our lives but in small one-to-one relationships, something we can all do, every day – treating others as we would like to be treated – an admonition, he reminds us, found in every major religious tradition.

In a chapter near the end of his book Friedman asks, “Is God in Cyberspace?” a place, ‘where we are all connected and no one is in charge.’

His answer is “no” — “but He wants to be there.” God is not going to intervene to solve our problems.   However, as Friedman believes – “He is truly manifest if we all choose sanctity and morality in an environment where we are all free to choose anything.”

For the revolution to gain traction he says we need leaders “to help people face reality and to mobilize them to make change.”

That may be some of the best advice for all of us including leaders in any profession for 2017 and beyond – face reality and make change.

In a sentence, the message of the book is: While none of us alone can control technology, globalization and climate change, together we can thrive, if we advance a moral revolution for the collective good.

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Howard Thurman’s Christmas

I’m struggling to find The Mood of Christmas that Howard Thurman (1899-1981), the prominent African American author, theologian, educator, and civil rights leader, wrote about in 1973.   

The election turmoil with its uncertain aftermath makes it difficult to focus on first things – family, hope, joy, music, giving.

I’ve quit watching TV news and only scan a few newspapers.

I need something more than Santa Claus music accompanying me while shopping for the right gifts for family members and friends.

And so I’ve returned to Howard Thurman’s The Mood of Christmas, written in another difficult time, including the poem now set to music —

I Will Light Candles this Christmas

I will light Candles this Christmas,
Candles of joy despite all the sadness,
Candles of hope where despair keeps watch,
Candles of courage for fears ever present,
Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days,
Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens,
Candles of love to inspire all my living,
Candles that will burn all year long.

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations
To bring peace among others,

Who knows what the future will bring?   Whatever it is for me I’m more concerned for my children and grandchildren.   I hope they too will find the timeless truth in these lines.

1973, the year Thurman wrote The Mood of Christmas was a difficult time as well.   I remember those days getting caught up on a cold rainy day in the anti-war demonstrations at Nixon’s second inauguration with the Watergate scandal about to erupt.

It was the year that changed the course of my life as I joined an effort to address the poverty crisis in a Washington, DC neighborhood scarred by the burned-out remains from the 1968 riots.

I’m not sure when I discovered Howard Thurman.

It may have been when I learned that Martin Luther King, Jr., carried with him a copy of Thurman’s most recognized book – Jesus and the Disinherited.   Or maybe when I first listened to his remarkable meditation on Psalm 139 near the end of his interview with Landrum Bolling – now on YouTube.

In mid-life he became a mentor I never met.   A candle in life when “darkness seems to hide His face.”


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Election Fears and Hopes

Two days after the election I joined with a group of friends, men and women, in Washington, D.C., to discuss our fears and hopes.  We were more interested in listening to one another than arguing about the uncertain future.  And we weren’t about to let political differences divide and destroy long-term relationships.   Friendship and family are too important for that.

I knew the people in the room well enough to know that we share a few common commitments that we hope will guide President-elect Trump as well.   Among them:


Shaped by ethical core values

Servant Leadership

Authority used for the collective good


Particularly for women, and all those who may differ from us


To disagree agreeably


Empathy for the poor and strangers among us


As fairness, the Golden Rule among nations and individuals


Where the majority protects the rights of minorities

Is this too much to hope for?

Will they be found in the leaders we choose to follow?

We’ll meet again in six months to see how it’s going.

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Intelligent Disobedience – Learning From Guide Dogs


In Ira Chaleff’s 2015 book Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You’re Told To Do Is Wrong, ‘intelligent disobedience’ in guide dogs is a metaphor for an important but often overlooked behavior pattern for humans.

A guide dog trainer told him that –

Most of the time it’s really important that the dog obeys human instructions. But imagessometimes it would be dangerous to do so; for example, when a man with limited sight gave command to step off a curb just as a quiet hybrid car was turning into the
street.   The dog must know not to obey a command that will put the team—human and dog—in danger.   Learning not to obey is a higher order of skill.

I was reminded of this recently listening to a young Marine officer recount how during an operation in Iraq he refused to follow an order, sure that if implemented it would lead to loss of life in his platoon.   Fortunately his senior officer commended him for his disobedience.   Both the junior and senior officers acted responsibly—the junior officer for his “intelligent disobedience” and the senior officer for recognizing that there are circumstances when obedience is wrong.

That experience is the heart of Chaleff’s book, a sequel to his earlier work, The Courageous Follower: Standing Up To And For Our Leaders.

He contends that our default response to authority is nearly always obedience, even when obedience is dangerous if not wrong.   We learn it early at home from our parents. It is reinforced in school.

Throughout our adult lives unquestioned obedience to authority becomes a cultural norm whatever the setting, blinding us to the destructive and immoral use of authority and immobilizing us even when we recognize that what we are told to do is wrong.   Seldom if ever are we taught when it is necessary to disobey authority.

Chaleff thought that if dogs can be trained for “intelligent disobedience” what about humans.   He argues that is just as important for us to know when and learn how to defy authority, as it is to obey.

Children, for instance, need to know when to refuse to go along with inappropriate contact with adults that could lead to sexual abuse.   He contends that parents and teachers need to teach and role-play “intelligent disobedience.”

The recent scandals at VW and Wells Fargo could have been prevented if lower level employees would have refused to go along with executive directives to engage in what they had to know was illegal and potentially criminal.   They probably thought they had to go along to keep their jobs.   But many of these employees eventually lost their jobs anyway.   The companies have experienced extensive losses while the executives have yet to be held responsible.

In the Nuremberg Trials after World War II, following orders was not an allowable defense for war crimes.   Likewise in any area of life we are always responsible for our actions regardless of the authorities.

Chaleff contends that leaders as well as followers need to learn ‘intelligent disobedience.’ Good leaders will tell followers not to obey when obedience would undermine the core values of the organization or violate their own morals.   A blind person expects the guide dog to refuse an order that would lead them both into harm’s way.   It takes a lot of training for guide dogs to learn that.

Good leaders know that they are not always right however well intentioned.   So they will commend followers for doing the right thing even if it is contrary to direction.

The problem is that ‘intelligent disobedience’ can be risky.   The employees at VW and Wells Fargo were understandably right to fear losing their jobs if they refused to go along.   ‘Whistle Blowers’ are more often than not denigrated rather than rewarded—thus recent laws to protect them.

Just as the marine junior officer risked his command and rank to save lives, so we all, leaders and followers alike, depend on the moral courage not to obey when to follow authority would damage if not destroy our personal and collective good.

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Living and Leading in a Tribal Way

We live in a country ‘at war with itself’ writes war correspondent Sebastian Junger in  Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.Unknown

The battle lines are everywhere—political gridlock and the most divisive presidential campaign in modern times, the widening wealth gap, worsening race relations, irresolvable conflicts over LGBT rights and same-sex marriage, to name a few.

The alarming increase of PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) among vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan is for Junger the most disturbing symptom of our cultural conflicts.   Some of the PTSD increase is among vets who were never in combat. The reason, he writes, is not the trauma of battle but the difficulty of returning home where there is very little camaraderie.

PTSD, according to studies he cites, is not necessarily caused by war, but the lack of belonging when they leave the military.   In combat platoons close-knit groups of soldiers are always together looking out for one another, willing to put themselves in harm’s way and even die for one another if necessary.

It’s when the vets return home feeling alone, with few job opportunities and not much to live for that the trauma begins.

‘Humans don’t mind hardship,’ he writes, ‘in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary.   Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.’  

While tribalism is often used to describe people who—like gang members, are more loyal to their own closed group than their neighbors, friends or even family.

For Junger, a tribe is an open family, a safe place of belonging.

To act in a ‘tribal way’, he says, ‘simply means being willing to make a substantive sacrifice for your community—be that your neighborhood, your workplace, or your entire country.’

The ultimate test of tribe he suggests is – ‘who are you willing to die for?’ –something he knows that seldom if ever most of us will be forced to consider.   Short of that however, Junger describes a tribal community in any setting as –

‘a group of people you would help feed and help defend’

Not all families are tribes in this sense, but they can be and many are.   And not all churches are communities of hope, but they too can be and many are.   The workplace is seldom a tribal community.   The Wall Street Journal reports that less than half of people are satisfied with their jobs.   Does it have to be that way?

What role or responsibility do leaders have to lead in a ‘tribal way’ so that they and their followers defer self-interest for the collective good?

Near the end of the book Yunger tells of a business man who gave up his salary rather than lay off workers when his company experienced a money-losing year.   The man, he writes, “felt that true leadership—the kind that lives depend on—may require powerful people to put themselves last.”

Junger’s point is that whether alone or in a crowd, all of us need healthy tribal relationships.   Without it anyone may spiral down into trauma.

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‘The Poor Who Love Trump’

If you don’t have time to read the Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and51G93vyEl5L._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_ Culture in Crisis, I recommend Jennifer Senior’s NY Times review of J. D. Vance’s new bestseller – A Compassionate Analysis of the Poor Who Love Trump.’   I’m not sure what she means by that other than Trump draws support from people like Vance describes – hillbillies who have given in to their misfortune and given up on themselves.

In his ‘elegy’ or lament Vance attributes much of Appalachian or ‘hillbilly/white trash/redneck’ poverty on what psychologist Martin Seligman calls ‘learned helplessness’ – a ‘fatalistic belief, born of too much adversity, that nothing can be done to change your lot.’

It’s his own story growing up in a dysfunctional family network in Middleton, Ohio populated by Kentucky immigrants. However, his observations apply to urban
poverty as well.

It seems to me that in impoverished neighborhoods, whether rural or urban, three things are at work:

  • bad luck – being born into poverty
  • bad structures – sometimes the government hurts as much as it helps, and,
  • bad decisions – perpetuating what Oscar Lewis called the ‘culture of poverty’

Vance escaped the despair of those he left behind with the help of grandparents, four years in the Marines and on to Ohio State and Yale law school.   I know several leaders who, like Vance, have an affection for their hillbilly roots even while recognizing with Vance that the culture ‘increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.’

Looking back he wonders – ‘how much should he hold his hillbilly kin responsible for their own misfortune?’   The answer is ‘a lot.’

 Those who serve with compassion and justice ministries know that it is always about intervening to help people overwhelmed with bad luck, bad structures and bad decisions.     It is never about blaming the victims or separating the deserving from the undeserving poor.

Senior’s review acknowledges that ‘Mr. Vance doesn’t have all the answers.  But he’s advancing the discussion.’   I agree.   What think ye?

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“Can We All Just Get Along?” — Rodney King

a684b0359f54d73307ffb3488c1363a369 percent of Americans say that race relations are bad and getting worse according to a New York Times/CBS News poll taken immediately after the killing of five Dallas police officers.   The headline read, we “Hold a Grim View of Race Relations.”

As reported this is the highest level of discord since the 1992 Los Angeles riots following the acquittal of the officers who beat Rodney King. Later King pled for peace with his famous question, ‘Can We All Just Get Along?’

Poor race relations are one of the dominant big-picture issues of the day.   At work, in stores, at school, in public places, even in churches there is a growing uneasiness.   Across the racial divide we eye one another and wonder.

One of my black friends told me he is hearing things that he thought were long buried, things he thought he would never hear again in America. Deteriorating race relations encourage some people to voice their hostility, even to act out on their otherwise unspoken prejudices.

Following the poll I talked about it with several of my friends both black and white.   I even had a conversation with my 14 year-old grandson Luke – who told me how he came to the defense of one his black friends when he was called the “N” word. He added that his black friend defended him when someone called him a ‘cracker.’ He said, “I can’t stand racists.” Good for you Luke, stand up for what you believe!

I suspect that as I have found in my own limited inquiry, race relations between those who have nurtured friendships over the years are not suddenly threatened by public hostility.   The problem is that too few have nurtured such relationships.

Rodney King knew that rioting wasn’t the answer.   Getting along was. In asking the question he hoped the public outcry against his mistreatment would lead to better, not worse, race relations.

Mark Twain said, “When you need a friend it’s too late to make one.” Building interracial friendships is not a quick fix. It will take much more to reverse centuries of entrenched prejudice and injustice, yet without it race relations are unlikely to improve.

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We Must Not Be Enemies

“We must not be enemies” – from President Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address

Following last week’s horrific violence it seems that we are like a ship without a rudder.   There is no national consensus about what to think or to do about guns, the police and race relations.

  • Some want to believe that the sniper in Dallas, the lone-wolf killer in Orlando and a few rogue cops shooting unarmed black citizens are anecdotal and thus ignore or deny the fault lines that divide and threaten all of us.
  • Others would use the tragedies of the past week to support their own convictions as well as prejudices and ideologies: for and against the police, blacks vs. whites, nativism vs. immigrants, straight vs. LGBT, gun rights vs. gun control, for and against Black Lives Matter.
  • In this political season some candidates and their supporters would exploit suffering and grief to advance their own partisan advantage.

Here are some of the things life has taught me about – Guns, Police and Race Relations

 About Guns

I learned something last week about guns in America: that most households do not have guns – less than half, perhaps fewer than a third.   The trend is downward.   As in the headline in a Washington Post article: “America has more guns in fewer hands than ever before.”   Gun sales are increasing because the few who have guns are buying more.

The growing majority of us who choose not to own guns are not necessarily trying to prevent others from the right to bear arms.  However, most Americans with or without guns want a discussion and direction on who should and should not have guns and what kind of guns should and should not be legal.  Gun rights and gun control issues do not need to be in conflict.

About the Police

Like most law-abiding citizens I have never felt threatened by the police.   The few times I’ve been stopped for traffic violations I have always been treated with respect, even protected by the police officers.   I thought that was normal, unrelated to my white skin until I began serving in an impoverished black neighborhood in Washington, D.C.   The police there were viewed by some as an occupation force in a war zone.

One of my first activities was to convene meetings between police officers and community leaders to achieve what is now called ‘community policing.’   We learned together that the neighborhood needed and wanted the police to keep the peace and the police needed and wanted community support to do their work.  It worked!

About Race Relations

In the mid-‘90’s I organized the Institute for Racial Reconciliation to convene discussions between blacks and whites.   I learned that in spite of our differences, and there were and are many, we are more alike than different.  When we took the time to listen deeply to one another most of the time we could find mutually agreeable solutions to long-standing divisions.   The problem is that there are too few times and places where black and white people meet to have candid conversations.

I learned that racial reconciliation will not happen without racial justice.   Displays of racial harmony and claims of interracial friendships are superficial without working together for justice and fairness.

Where do we go from here?

In spite of our national divisions I hold to the truth from President Lincoln’s First Inaugural address to a divided nation on the eve of the Civil War:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.”

Though we will not always agree with one another, the vast majority of us want to live together free from fear – as friends, not enemies.   We are urged in Scripture to pray for those in authority that we might “lead a quiet and peaceable life.” We want leaders who will help us find our way there.

As Lincoln expressed it in that address, we live in hope that eventually we will be touched by the ‘better angels of our nature.



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