I’m awake at 5:30 in the morning, debating the wisdom of using the song I’m On A Boat while teaching a yoga class (in boat pose, of course). I began yoga teacher training last night and had an epiphany of irony. It’s genuine irony, not in a “rain on your wedding day” kind of way. Genuine irony.
Following an introduction and overview to the program, they had us pair up and tell each other about ourselves. I rattled off my life story – born and raised in New York, some school in Massachusetts, a spell with a band in Los Angeles, a world tour playing online poker, then back to New York to write books and teach martial arts.
My partner told me where she was from, where she’d been, and where she was now. Then she started sharing more personal stuff about what yoga meant to her and her life. That’s when I stopped listening.
I didn’t stop hearing, I didn’t lose interest, and I didn’t stop paying attention. I stopped listening. I started relating.
Despite being rather self-involved, I’ve always been an empathic dude. Maybe that’s a by-product of being an only child with cats. I don’t know. It’s a lack of proactive thoughtfulness juxtaposed with a willingness to help people whenever they ask for it. I became a vegetarian when I was five. And there I go being self-involved again.
So what’s wrong with relating to someone? It’s great to relate to people, right? It’s a way to make friends. It’s a way to understand people.
When I try to understand people by relating to them, I’m doing a good job of understanding myself. It’s great for introspection. But when someone tells me about something about themself, my attempt to relate to that story can disrupt my listening. I’m not listening to them talk about themself anymore. I’m thinking about myself now. I’m not observing their unique story. I’m projecting mine over theirs. I’m tainting the data. It’s ironic. My attempt to understand someone is interferring with my ability to understand them.
Here’s the thing about empathy. It’s not exactly the same thing as relating. It’s about feeling the emotions that someone else is projecting as opposed to projecting one’s emotions onto someone else’s. It’s sort of the complement.
Relating to someone paints their story with the listener’s brush, but empathizing paints the observer with the storyteller’s emotions. This comes down to the issue in science of the observer effect. You can’t observe something without changing it. Similarly, you can’t empathize with somethone without letting that change you.
I started watching Bones a few weeks ago and I’m on season four already. The title character is a hyper-rational forensic anthropologist who is socially awkward. Bones has a very difficult time relating to people. While the character is substantially developed in the course of the show, this social awkwardness is a common stereotype of scientific and rational people. Like most stereotypes, it’s an overgeneralization that is based in some amount of truth.
In order to be objective, there is a need to remain separate from the observed, attempting to make as small an imprint as possible. There is also a need to remain unaffected by the observed, in order to maintain objectivity. Scientific objectivity often presents itself as emotional detachment. In a sense, it is emotional detachment.
The truth is that there is no observer without an observed. There is nothing observed without an observer. And there is neither observer nor observed without the act of observation. I don’t think we can change that, and I don’t think we should. It’s just important to be aware of the impact one makes on the other, whether we’re the observer or the observee.