Practicing Empathy

I recently heard a story about a guy sitting in a public place, clearly wearing a wedding ring and clearly scrolling through a dating app. What’s disturbing wasn’t just the fact that he was cheating on his partner, but that he was doing it so obviously, right out in the open where anyone could see.

What a bastard.

It’s times like this when I’m reminded most powerfully of David Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water” speech (*). He challenges us to try and do better when we make assumptions, to think better. We have a choice whether to assume or not, and if we choose to make assumptions, we get to choose what we assume.

Far and away the most likely explanation for this man’s behavior is that he’s cheating on his partner. I’m not so naïve as to believe otherwise. But I think moments such as this are when it’s most import for us to take Wallace’s idea to heart. So, I like to take this opportunity to challenge myself to think of other possible explanations. Why might a married man be scrolling through a dating app, if not to cheat?

I recall a guy I knew several years ago who lost his wife. He had a difficult time with his grief, couldn’t seem to move on. It got to be unhealthy. He knew he needed to let go, get back out into the world, and maybe even start dating again. This was before the age of online dating, and so getting back out there meant going to bars, going to clubs, getting involved in social activities.

And that meant taking off his wedding ring. He just couldn’t bring himself to do that. The finality of that act was more than he could bear.

Dating apps like Tinder would have been godsend for this man. Online dating would have provided a gentler transition, allowing him to take baby steps back into the world, without the need to jump in all at once. He could have spent time getting used to it, gradually learn to think of himself as a dating man again, without the immediate pressure to take off his ring.

So I wonder if this guy who was sitting in public, wearing a wedding ring and scrolling through a dating app, might not be trying his best to move on from loss. Maybe he can’t bring himself to do it in the home he used to share with his partner. Maybe he’s trying to get used to being available and out in public again. Maybe, like the guy I once knew, he can’t bring himself to take off his ring just yet.

Another possibility: Maybe he’s working through some personal demons with no intention of actually going through with anything. Just wondering what might have been.

Maybe he and his partner have decided to spice things up by trying a threesome or a group thing and he’s looking for willing people.

Maybe he and his partner are in a consensual open relationship.

I’ve known a few couples over the years who had fun creating profiles on various dating services to see if the services would match them together. They didn’t use these sites, it was just for entertainment.

None of these possibilities are likely and this guy is probably a faithless cheater. But there’s a non-zero chance that maybe something else is going on here that I know nothing about.

It’s my choice what to think.

Every time I try and imagine scenarios like this, to take on Wallace’s admonition this way, there are two things which strike me:

  1. It’s an actively creative process. It’s an act of imagination. It’s storytelling.
  2. Pretty much all of us get empathy wrong.

We think of empathy as a trait, something inherent in a person’s personality. We think of it as passive and reliable.

But it’s not. Empathy requires active engagement and conscious effort. Empathy is something you do and practice. It’s a skill.

Empathy is an action. It’s how we tell stories about each other.


* There’s quite a lot to criticize about Wallace and, in particular, “This Is Water.” I’m intellectually vain enough to want to make it clear that I’m aware of these criticisms. For my personal favorite example, read this piece by Emily Harnett on LitHub (**):

How the Best Commencement Speech of All Time Was Bad for Literature: David Foster Wallace’s New Sentimentality Got Old, Fast
(posted May 17, 2016)

I agree with quite a lot in this article. The saccharine sincerity Wallace provides under the guise of “hard-earned wisdom” (insipid and self-congratulatory in its self-effacement) did help me to identify concrete things that I can do to practice and maintain empathy in my world, to make a habit of it. Whether or not I bring the empathy in my head out into the public sphere is my responsibility. But how I think precedes how I act, so internal thought process and personal worldview can’t be brushed aside as inconsequential. My empathy impels me to act and Wallace’s words gave me a tool to shape my empathy.

Whether that’s a credit to me or to him… I honestly don’t care.


** Harnett ends her piece by conflating the cult of sincerity with the rise of Donald Trump. I think I understand her reasoning but I can’t agree with it: Trump has never been sincere about anything in his entire life. What he gave us wasn’t sincerity—it was an empty pastiche of earnestness. It was a con, a distraction, an over-the-top sales pitch he knew lots of desperate people would gobble up. I won’t tar genuine sincerity with the brush of Trump. He and sincerity have never met, and never the twain shall they.

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