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How to be human

How to be human

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Gay Pride Is Celebrated In Berlin
Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images

How To Be Human is ending. Today is the very last column. I want to thank all of you for reading and for writing to me. I’m grateful so many of you entrusted me with your most difficult problems and thorniest, trickiest questions.  

As I mentioned, this last column is going to answer the additional two questions from last week’s letter. Rather than reprint the whole letter, I’ll just include the questions themselves, because as much as I’m speaking to the letter writer, this one is for all of us.

First, Sagittaire asks:

What's the line between self-confidence and having pride in one's self and achievements, and hubris and arrogance? How can I talk grandly of myself (which seems to be the de facto way of demonstrating self-confidence) without feeling guilty? I especially feel guilty about betraying my own belief that my life and achievements are things I primarily do for me, not to brag about or share constantly with others.

You can find that line in the answer to this question: When you talk about yourself or your achievements, what are you hoping will happen? Are you excited about it and want to share? Or do you want something, like other people being jealous or suddenly seeing you as more valuable? I think the difference between self-confidence and arrogance is the degree of security, or insecurity as the case may be.

Let me give you an example not related to achievement. Many years ago, during a breakup, I told a friend of mine I wanted to send an email to my ex telling him how I felt. My friend asked me why I wanted to email him. I told her it was really for myself—I wanted him to know how much he’d hurt me. So she asked, “How are you going to feel if he doesn’t respond?” When I thought about it, I had to be honest with myself: I wanted to email him because I wanted him to respond. Since then, I try to question my own motives and think about why I want to say something and what I want to get out of it. It’s helpful in friendships and relationships, but also in understanding myself.

What are you hoping will happen when you talk about yourself? Is it a particular response?

I used to think that confidence and arrogance were distinguished by volume. My assumption was that, if you were really secure in yourself and felt great about what you did in a deep way, you didn’t need to talk about it. This came from the idea I had about what people like to call “quiet confidence.” But that quietness is more about how you talk about it, rather than whether or not you talk about it. You know when you see someone who is really confident and not arrogant, right? It’s in the way they hold themselves physically, and it’s also evident from how they talk about themselves and what they do. Someone who’s really self-confident doesn’t need you to tell them they did a great job in order to believe it themselves. They also don’t need to use their own accomplishments to make you feel bad about yourself. Instead, they talk about what they’ve accomplished in a way that conveys how much they love what they do or how excited they are about an achievement.

Sure, someone who’s confident still wants others to be excited with and for them! Celebrating with others is a way to express that joy. And needing external approbation in order to thrive doesn’t mean you’re not confident — lots of confident people do best with a little praise from others. Similarly, talking confidently about what you do or being forthright about your own accomplishments isn’t necessarily being arrogant or smug. In fact, sometimes it’s necessary to talk confidently about your own success. Many of us have to recognize and assert ourselves because if we don’t recognize our achievements openly, no one else will.

it’s like you said, Sag — your life and your achievements are for you. You are allowed to be excited about them and want to share that excitement. You’re allowed to acknowledge you’re good at something. Just try to examine your motives when you can. If you realize you want to talk about an achievement so someone will like you better, think about why you assume they won’t like you regardless. If you find you want to brag grandly because someone else is talking about their success and it’s taking the spotlight away from you, hold back.

Last but not least: How to build empathy? Whether it's in oneself or others, what makes people make the effort to care about others and strive to understand them?

Empathy is something I spend quite a lot of time thinking about. I gave a talk on it last year, and wrote a bit about it a year ago, too.

One of the things I say in the talk is that empathy has become shorthand for our collective desire to give a shit. Don’t get me wrong, I think empathy is important, but I also think we’ve put so much emphasis on empathy without remembering what it is and what it isn’t. There’s a piece I like a lot and refer to in my talk called Against Empathy by a guy named Paul Bloom. (He also has a book by the same title, which I haven’t read yet but plan to.) I recommend reading the piece, even if the title puts you off at first. I’m not going to tl;dr his argument, but I will tell you that he reminds us to separate affective empathy and cognitive empathy, and to think about the effect each has when we value the concept as a whole.

Affective empathy is the emotional kind, the one that allows you to feel another person’s pain. As someone who does this regularly, I can tell you from experience that it’s very hard. I’m glad I’m able to do it, but it’s the sort of thing that can burn you out very quickly and leave you in a vulnerable, difficult position. When you’re the person everyone comes to for emotional support, who’s going to be there to support you? Not everyone is capable of affective empathy, and even those who are aren’t always very good at it.

Cognitive empathy is different. It’s not about slipping into another person’s emotional state or being able to feel their pain but is instead a process by which you work to understand their perspective or worldview. And by understand I don’t necessarily mean agree with or support. I mean hear it and learn about it. Once you have that understanding, you can make a more informed decision about how you want to act, or whether you want to act at all.

Understanding someone’s perspective doesn’t necessarily mean you agree with or support it. It just means hear it and learn about it

Cognitive empathy is about hearing someone — like really hearing what they have to say. Sometimes that’s part of their problem, feeling like they’re not being heard! Sometimes, being heard and acknowledged by someone who’s able to empathize with us is the thing that allows us to let go of our anger or fear and change our minds. Not always, but sometimes!

You see, empathy isn’t the same thing as compassion. Empathizing with someone isn’t the same thing as solving their problem. You might not be able to, or you might not want to. But even if you empathize or sympathize with someone (two different things!), that’s not the same as engaging in a compassionate act. It’s not the same as actively working to solve whatever is causing them to suffer. This is why it’s possible to understand someone’s perspective, to have cognitive empathy, but to have no interest in empathizing emotionally or in doing anything to solve that person’s problem. It’s like when someone’s asked to “empathize” with people who have abused them and who certainly haven’t empathized in return. The worldview of a dominant force is pretty clear to most people, except perhaps to the dominant force itself.

This is what I think is the key to empathy and what makes it so difficult. The very first steps are the hardest. In order to empathize with someone:

You have to accept you don’t know everything.

You have to accept you’re not the expert on someone else’s perspective or lived experience.

You have to be willing to listen, even when you want to interrupt, correct, or dismiss them.

You have to ask questions rather than offer solutions.

You have to accept that you have biases and assumptions you need to question.

You have to be willing to feel uncomfortable.

You have to make a good faith effort.

You have to listen.

I look at that list and think, good lord, that’s a lot of hard work. Hard, human work that you have to do on the spot, which means you’ll mess it up a lot. You’ll probably get hurt or hurt other people, and get angry and defensive, and feel like it’s all a waste of time. But if you keep trying, it’s incredibly rewarding. Even if you’re not able or willing to do anything to help, actively empathizing with someone teaches you about them, the world, and yourself. In the best cases, it allows you to make a rational choice about how to be compassionate toward that person and how to most effectively help them.

You can’t empathize with everyone. First off, there’s not enough time in the universe for you to do that, and second, a lot of people don’t want to do the work of empathy, even if it’s being empathized with. They’d rather insult you or be cruel. But empathizing with those who want to engage is a gift. It reminds me to listen and learn, to not assume I already know. It teaches me that not everything is for me, just as many things are for me that haven’t been for others. Empathizing has shown how to better question my assumptions and to quietly, constantly recalibrate my own perspective and worldview. It’s also forced me to be more patient with people, because I know that no matter how hard you work, recalibrating your understanding of the world around you is difficult. Everyone fumbles. Everyone has biases. Everyone has perspectives they can change. Even the best, smartest, kindest among us have terrible, even ignorant opinions. But that’s how to be human. At least, that’s how to be the kind of human I want to be: complicated, messy, open to change, willing to learn, ready to do better. Change means sometimes we’re going to get it right and sometimes we’re going to get it wrong. Change takes time.

Being human takes time. And not just any time, but a lifetime. Why not start now?