Empathy: The Starting Point To Building A Better World

“You’ve gotta watch Breaking Bad. Watch a few episodes and it’s going to hook you.”

“What’s it about?”

“Walter White, a brilliant scientist turned chemistry teacher, gets diagnosed with cancer and starts cooking meth to pay for his treatment and support his pregnant wife and disabled son.”

“That’s not really my speed.”

My friend Scott recommends shows for me to watch all the time, and they’re usually great, so I decided to give Breaking Bad a go, even though the premise didn’t really appeal to me, but he was right: I sped through the first four seasons in about two weeks, and what really struck me was the fact that I was rooting for a man who would kill someone — even an innocent person — to “protect his family.” Why was I cheering on someone to ruin people’s lives with a drug that led to violence, greed, and the thirst for power? Why was I rooting against a well-intentioned DEA agent driven by justice to save people’s lives and get a dangerous drug off the streets? The answer: I saw myself in Walter White — not because I wanted to cook meth or murder my rivals (I like my rivals) — but because I, too, have had my back against the wall. I, too, have been doubted by even the people closest to me. So when Walter made the decision to end someone else’s life, I found myself conflicted internally because, even though I would never consider murder, I could understand what motivated Walter to do it.

And that’s something the world needs more of — not murder, but empathy. Being able to see the world through the eyes of people unlike yourself is the key to understanding why they do what they do. That’s why we love stories: we get to see the protagonist’s world through his or her eyes while rooting for them to overcome their adversities; and the well-written shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, or Dexter will have us rooting for the protagonist, even though he or she is willing to do some unsavory deeds to get ahead.

Now these are all fictional stories, but our capacity to empathize with the people in these shows and judge them based on why they do what they do, rather than what they do, is a skill we can use with people in the real world who are unlike us. To be able to see through the eyes of another, even if he is a diametric opposite, can help you communicate better, reach agreement, build a relationship, and even make you happier. Though you may not be willing to do what someone else has done, to be able to connect with why he does it is the first step to bringing unlike people together — a must in an increasingly connected world.

Whether you agree with me or not, chances are we both want to live better lives in a better world, and that is a great starting point for coming together and creating it.

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