Empathy in Flux, Part 2

Jason De Caro recently shared this video from the Cleveland Clinic. For those who can’t watch it, the video shows various individuals in a hospital setting , with captions describing the most recent, pertinent events in that person’s life (a woman visiting her terminally ill husband, someone learns they’re about to become a parent, etc.)


I thought it was a nice reminder that external appearances are often superficial. All people have a complex history behind them, beyond just the snippets and cross-sections that we observe, particularly when meeting someone for the first time. In another post, titled “Empathy in Flux,” I wrote that single slices of a person’s life are never enough to fully understand the complexity of a person:

as Forrest Gump famously put it: “stupid is as stupid does.” I think this is an often misunderstood piece of folk wisdom. My interpretation of this is that one can evaluate actions without leaping to evaluations of states of being. Certainly one can do stupid things without “being” stupid. To believe another person “is” stupid (or any personality trait you can imagine) is to claim one has found the signal among the noise, while ignoring a LOT of complexity, the deviation around the mean. In short, we have just a cross-section in the totality of that person’s life. Even Hitler laughed. Even Gandhi had periods of depression. Certainly, we have more than a snapshot of these particular individuals’ lives, but we don’t have that for everyone we meet. How different would our impression of others be if we had that longitudinal data in front of us? Of course, for most people the amplitude of one’s personality does not fluctuate that widely. Most people are consistent in either being kind, or funny, or complete assholes. But context and variation are essential. 

Like all reminders to be mindful, the video is welcome (and necessary).



One thought on “Empathy in Flux, Part 2

  1. No comments? So I’ll just say thanks to Patrick for this reminder that humans need humanity. I take that as a reminder that none of us are perfect — Hitler must certainly have laughed, but I’m not sure what he laughed at. We can never know all of a person, and I am reminded that most (?) murders happen between people who live together and should know each other best. Many men would never dream of killing their girl friend, but fantasize on how convenient it would be if their wife of many years were to have a fatal accident. This is also a part of humanity we cannot ignore. The ‘kindness of strangers’ is often easier than the kindness of loved ones.

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