Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Intellectual Empathy: A Gift from My Mom

Let me tell you about my mom.

My mom is a dreamer. She likes music, literature, and beauty. She is loving and generous, with a poet’s heart. There is a streak of mysticism in her. She gravitates toward books written by Deepak Chopra and Joseph Campbell and Stephen Cosgrove, to the music of Yanni and Rachmaninoff and Andrea Bocelli. For good and bad, she has always been as much a friend as a parent. She is rarely critical of her children, even when they deserve it. She always listens, and she truly believes her children are overflowing with genius—a testament to how much she loves us rather than to how intelligent any of us are.

Legally speaking, I’ve been an adult for nearly half of my life. But it wasn’t until this past week or so that I realized what may be the greatest benefit of my upbringing. I was raised in a family where ideas were taken seriously. Opinions, points of view, and speculative thinking were embraced. If someone wondered aloud about something, it was warmly received. My mom was the anchor to this. When I think of family activities from my youth, I think of having conversations. That’s what my family did. We traveled a decent amount, and we had conversations. That’s how we spent our time together. Talking. As much as this has done for my intellectual development, it is the emotional consequences of this for which I feel most grateful. My mom was a wonderful example of how listening to others and taking them seriously is an act of love. I believe I am a more compassionate person because of her example. When someone shares something personal with me—when someone opens up and is sincere—I do not take it lightly. Scoffing at or mocking someone who is being sincere is one of the most off-putting things I can imagine. My heart is far from that. For me, to know someone is to love them—and vice versa. Love thus requires an open line of communication, one that is entirely safe and free of judgment and criticism. I believe one of my greatest strengths is my ability to offer such a line of communication to others. It’s such a grand claim that few people really believe it, but I adamantly attest that people can confide in me about anything and not need to feel embarrassed. I just don’t work that way. And when I say a person can share anything, I truly mean anything. Let your imagination go wild. Fears, beliefs, desires, fantasies—if shared with an attitude of trust, I’m not sure I could have a negative reaction to someone sharing something so personal, no matter the details involved. (An exception could be made if I felt unsafe, but that only makes sense.)

I say that the primary payoff of my upbringing is emotional, rooted in my ability to sympathize and commiserate with others. This is true, and yet I’m surprised at how much this has informed my rational thinking. I believe my critical thinking skills are enhanced by my fairly automatically taking a charitable view of whatever position I’m considering. Philosophers (and academics in general, I assume) are trained to be charitable in their responses to arguments, so as to avoid refuting “straw men.” But I think this charity too often runs low. It runs especially low when we move outside of the professional and academic realms and into our own personal quests for truth. In our private lives, there is little to no peer review. Or, rather, people tend not to associate with those who would offer anything other than support of their beliefs and ideologies. Thus, outside of the professional realm, there is little pressure to give charitable consideration to views that oppose one’s own. But as I see it, intellectual empathy (if we may call it that) is more than a professional obligation. Instead, taking ideas seriously is what all honest, loving people will do. It is the honest thing to do, because honesty is an aversion to falsehoods and one can avoid falsehoods only by remaining ever open to truth. It is the loving thing to do, because to love is to empathize, and empathy requires understanding not only what others experience but how they experience it. Nobody thinks of his/her own belief system as asinine. Thus, if you think a system of beliefs is absurd, you haven’t been compassionate enough. And if you haven’t been compassionate enough, chances are you don’t really understand the other person’s view.

When it comes to my religious beliefs, I think that taking ideas seriously is both the cause of my doubts and the source of my resilience. I do not shy away from critically examining my beliefs. I do not presume people who believe differently than I do are less warranted in their beliefs than I am in mine. As much as possible, I recognize and acknowledge the limitations and biases of my own point of view. It seems inevitable that I should gravitate more toward agnosticism than I once did. And in some instances—that is, on some particular points—I am agnostic where I once was not. But on various other points, I am more certain than ever that they are true. And I find this thrilling. It’s also a bit terrifying, because I see how difficult (and perhaps impossible) it is to ascertain truth. And I’m not sure I would have retained the truths I have (assuming they’re true) if not for my stubbornness in taking the ideas behind them seriously, even amidst the waves of doubt. Where others would have scoffed and laughed and rolled their eyes, I listened. And I didn’t stop listening. Importantly, I gave ear to both sides, and I considered each side from its own as well as from opposing perspectives. I was critical, but I was also empathetic. Had I been only one or the other, I think the outcome of my searching could have been quite different.

Refusing to balk at ideas—whatever those ideas might be—has served me better than perhaps any other characteristic instilled in me as a child. This has become especially apparent to me as I’ve waded (and continue to wade) my way through a great spiritual transformation. I am grateful for this intellectual empathy. I am grateful to have come from a family that cherished ideas, not as something to be argued for and defended but as something to be admired and appreciated. I am grateful that compassion preceded critical analysis in my life, because I don’t think it works as well to learn it the other way around. I am grateful to my mom for always seeing the merits of what a person had to say, such that it is now natural and instinctual in me to do the same. I think it may be the greatest gift she has given me.


  1. I am honored and humbled. And I must say that much of the fuel for this flame came from you, having such marvelous ways of expressing what many of us think and feel, and reaching ever further to capture ideas. You are awesome.

  2. This is a great post! A wonderful tribute to your mother and very insightful how it all works together.