Empathy notes #4: Toward an era of wise caring

Reason and feeling each have gifts and limitations.  Used well together they generate wise caring.  There are examples of wise caring in earlier human societies and we have an opportunity today to build on them and enhance that capacity in our whole civilization.

Down deep within us – underlying everything that we think, feel and do – we find our needs burning brightly along with our values (the cultural expression of our needs). When I say “needs” I’m referring to deep universal needs, such as our needs for love, expression, nutrition, control, respect, etc. I’m not referring to the specific desires and strategies we pursue – like a new car or time with our children – in an effort to meet those fundamental needs.

Our fundamental needs and values are the wellsprings of our motivations. They stimulate us to understand what we need to do to find satisfaction and happiness. We use two primary tools in that pursuit: feeling and reason.

Feeling manifests as sensation, emotion, empathy, resonance, and gut impulses and responses. Our feelings orient us to what we want and get us moving toward and away from things. In contrast, reason works with facts, evidence, ideas, and logic. It helps us appraise what we want and don’t want, to make meaning of what’s happening, and to clarify HOW we should satisfy our needs.

Reason and feeling need each other. Reason can clarify what our situation is and what our options are, but we can only decide what to do when our feelings tell us what we want. Feelings can direct us to what we want and connect us with – or separate us from – other people and the life around us, but we need the skills of reason to help us be realistic about our best choices.

The gifts and limits of reason and feeling

I think the best product of reason is successful engagement with life based on insightful knowledge about the world and our role in it. I think the best product of feeling is heartfelt engagement with the world based on healthy caring for ourselves and others.

Of course we don’t always get the best products from our reason and feelings. Both of them have many weaknesses. Here are just a few examples:

  • Feeling can be misguided by limited or impulsive perspectives that take into account only a tiny – and often biased – part of what’s going on in and around us.
  • Reason can be misguided by misinformation, distorted interpretations, dysfunctional beliefs, and even lack of time and resources to learn and think.
  • We often use reason not to figure out the best strategies but to convincingly justify – to ourselves and/or others – what we want to believe or do, no matter how misguided those beliefs and actions may be.
  • Reason can suppress healthy feelings and justify unhealthy ones. Some of the worst harms are created by very rational people.
  • Feelings can distort our ability to think clearly and push us into acts that ultimately damage us and those around us – a phenomenon disparagingly called “irrationality”.
  • Perhaps our most potent and holiistic way of knowing – feeling-based intuition – can mislead us when it is not checked against reasonable evidence.

Reason and feeling need each other to create wise caring

It becomes increasingly obvious that reason and feeling need each other. To the extent they are alienated from each other, we run into trouble. Rationality without empathy can produce damaging results – from toxic belief systems and behaviors to toxic technologies and social systems. Likewise, empathy without adequate rational discernment and evidence can also generate damaging results – from co-dependence and pity to passivity and ineffectiveness – notably missing the larger systemic causes of the suffering and problems we are trying to address.

However, when reason and feeling work together to generate knowledgeable compassion and compassionate knowledge they create true UNDERSTANDING, especially when supported by well-tested intuitions. The rational dimension of understanding is “I understand what’s going on.” Its compassionate dimension is “I understand YOU.” The best form of understanding – insightful appreciation – includes both dimensions in a healthy balance that uplifts the aliveness in the people or situations we’re dealing with.

Most remarkably, as healthy understanding deepens and broadens, embracing more of who we are, more of who is involved, and more of what is going on – past, present, and future – it evolves into wise caring – the finest outcome of partnership between reason and empathy.

The Evolution of Wise Caring

Empathy evolved in small groups. Through its support for human mutuality and healthy social interaction, it has helped us survive together; if it didn’t, it wouldn’t have become such a significant part of our lives for so long.

Human empathy also evolved in intimate relationship with other species and with whole ecosystems, such that tribal cultures and some agricultural communities tend to have tremendous regard for and resonance with plants and animals, merging with them in rituals, respectfully asking permissions from them, even seeing rocks and locations as conscious and alive, as family, as “all my relations”. The land was – and for many still is – not so much a resource as “Mother Earth”, a being of tremendous power and generosity. As we mine and poison this sacred being, her suffering calls forth tears, anger, and determination, just as if our own human mother were being abused.

This perspective has been frowned on by certain groups for many centuries. Some monotheistic religions have seen the indigenous, nature-worshipping perspective as evil, as dangerously misplacing our devotion and responsibility from God to subhuman (or even demonic) entities and forces. Modern developmental psychologists have framed indigenous views as primitive, as having not matured into independence – individually from our mothers and collectively from (mother) nature. Modern science has seen the indigenous perspective as “anthropomorphism” – as projecting human characteristics and consciousness into entities that are subhuman, not particularly sentient, or not even alive in the first place.

These culturally “advanced” worldviews have reinforced the blessing that we call “independence”, while separating us from a far greater reality called “interdependence” and “wholeness”. This separation has alienated us and deprived us of precious cultural assumptions and stories that make wise caring come more naturally. The task for those of us who become aware of this alienation is to weave ourselves and our society back into empathic experience of, understanding of, and practical engagement with all that we consider “not us” – with the Other, with Nature, with the past and future, and even with our social dynamics and systems – while preserving the gifts that individuality brings to our lives and our world.

This will involve recovering “indigenous consciousness”, awareness of the full aliveness of our place – local and global – and of our proper role in it. In today’s world that indigenous consciousness can be informed by – although it must be not dominated by – our scientific understandings which can provide additional complexity, texture and evidential effectiveness to guide our wise caring.

My precaution about domination arises from concern about the arrogance that linear logic and scientific power tend to generate because of their efficacy in addressing narrowly viewed problems. Because wholeness and interconnectedness are inescapable fundamental realities, our brilliant solutions to narrowly defined problems too often generate further problems elsewhere in life, which linear science and reason then claim exclusive competence to address. In this way our caring can become very unwise, indeed.

Luckily, science itself is evolving into greater understanding of complexity – especially the nature of living systems, including both human and natural systems, which unfold at the “edge of order and chaos”. This expanded understanding pushes us as a civilization to come to practical terms with both the intrinsic uncertainty and the intrinsic vitality of such systems and of life itself. This can help us assume a more humble, participatory attitude and respect for interconnectedness and wholeness and inspire a practice of science that makes space for spirit, empathy, partnership, and a filial regard for nature.

Most of us, however, aren’t complexity scientists or members of indigenous tribal cultures. Our inborn empathic sensibilities channel our attention to the immediate suffering of those who are like us or related to us. It is difficult for us ordinary modern folks to sense the aliveness and needs of large evolutionary dynamics, of “inanimate” places, of invisible political and economic systems, or even of people and organisms living elsewhere, or at a different scale, or in the future, especially people and organisms most impacted by the dynamics and systems we can’t readily see but are actively co-creating with our fellows.

Strategies and Resources for Expanding into Wise Caring

We face an urgent challenge to evolve our empathy so that it covers these missing realms of sensing and sensibility, facilitated, among other things, by our reason. In particular, mass media, journalism, education, and interactive media need to be used to help our empathy evolve, rather than simply manipulating it in unproductive and unsustainable directions (often for profit or power). I see it this way:

  • We need to expand our caring to include more. We need to embrace more of what is different from us – more diverse people, more living things (not just cuddly mammals), more future generations, more of what many indigenous cultures think of as “all my relations” and, in the big picture, as Mother Earth.
  • We need to use stories to bring the role of larger systems into the range of our empathy. Stories can help us empathically connect with people and other living things impacted by unhealthy systems and to make those systems more visible to us.
  • We need to empathize with and and support people and groups who care beyond the normal bounds of empathy, who work or sacrifice for the larger good. They are the immune systems and evolutionary drivers of our culture.
  • We can use empathy to support individual and group efforts to change systems. We can use active empathy to give emotional support to change agents or to transform the consciousness of people in power. We can use empathy to help resolve conflicts in and among activist groups or set up “listening stations” at the edges of activist demonstrations. Strategic questioning can open people up to new perspectives and engagement with change – from the inside out. The Listening Project sometimes uses active listening to actually shift people into more proactive roles in issues they weren’t aware of, hadn’t thought much about, or were trying to deny or fight about.
  • We can use reason and science to expand the reach of empathy and empathy to expand the heart of reason. We can take an active role in changing the belief that these are separate human qualities, that one is more important than the other. Science can expand our view of reality far beyond what is obvious and immediate: Native Americans didn’t know they were hunting megafauna to extinction, but with modern science we KNOW we are causing extinctions. This expands our range of effective empathy and responsibility. (A fascinating TED talk explores how integrating head and heart results in “effective altruism”.) In another domain, Dynamic Facilitation uses targeted empathy to clear the way for a group working through hot emotional issues. The group can then channel their caring – the very caring that generated all their problematic adversarial heat in the first place – into co-creativity that leads to breakthroughs. A leading edge of citizen deliberation mixes Dynamic Facilitation with expertise and education about a public issue, creating a powerful partnership between empathy and informed reason.
  • We can promote the idea that enlightened empathy is actually a very intimate partner of enlightened self-interest.

There are many resources to help reason and feeling evolve into wise caring. Various forms of systems thinking – including ecology, complexity, and feedback analysis – are among the most powerful resources for developing KNOWLEDGE that supports wise caring. Empathic reflective listening – as practiced artfully in such approaches as Nonviolent Communication and Dynamic Facilitation – is one of the most powerful resources for developing COMPASSION that supports wise caring. The inclusion of diverse voices and perspectives supports wise caring in both dimensions – knowledge and compassion – when we are able to integrate that diversity into an understanding that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Co-intelligence and Wise Caring

Co-intelligence theory includes multi-modal intelligence that integrates the intelligences of head, heart, gut, etc.  Co-intelligence advocacy promotes randomly selected citizen deliberations, especially where emotions and stories are valued aspects of the conversation – and especially where diverse citizens are dynamically facilitated to embrace more of the whole, as a collectively wise voice of “we, the people”.

In my co-intelligence work I focus on political and economic institutions because I believe that it will take far too long for enough individuals to do the necessary personal evolution, and that we can buy time by empowering processes and institutions that enable people to while they make policy, even if they act out those polarities in the rest of their lives. I like to think that that approach will allow society to keep going long enough to have most individuals make the needed leaps into greater personal wholeness. I think of this as comparable to racial integration policy and corporate diversity-trainings prompting more interracial relations to be more just and understanding, while buying time and creating contexts where more individuals evolve out of their racism and while new generations are being born with progressively less of that burden.

But the marriage and evolution of empathy and reason into wise caring is an undertaking of profound magnitude and complexity. There is ample space for all efforts in this direction, and good reason for us to make them complementary. There is an important future trying to be born through our collective work and attention in this area. I so look forward to its ongoing unfolding.


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