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The entry point to empathy

Dunbar’s number refers to a theory that primates - including humans - are limited by their brain size to a certain number of social connections.


The number, according to the theory, is 150; described in one reference as the number of meaningful contacts, or people with whom you’d feel comfortable say, getting coffee. But there are various other layers such as your tightest inner circle (5 people), good friends (15 people), friends (50 people), acquaintances (500 people), and people you can recognize (1500 people).


There are also, of course, individual variations. More extroverted people may have more, thinly spread connections, while those who are more introverted have fewer, “thick” connections. And women generally have more connections than men.


And even with those caveats, this theory and the numbers as you might expect, are highly debated. Questions arise around what affect the online world has, for instance, and whether the theory is skewed toward Weird societies.


But regardless, I think the basic premise makes sense, no?


The premise that human beings have some number of social connections they are able to maintain even if we can’t precisely determine that number or even the reason why the number exists. I mean, you can intuitively sense there’s some outer limit.


There’s a boundary beyond which you don’t “know” people.


You don’t know unique things about them like where they work, their kids’ names, or whether they have pets. You’ve never had a direct conversation with them or sat down for a meal. You’ve never even had that office smile and wave as with your most distant workmates.


In short, you’ve had none of the experiences that constitute a human relationship of any kind.


So what does this mean in terms of how we relate to people?


When we know people even just a little, it is easier to relate to them. To relate to their joy so that we want to share in it; to relate to their pain so that we want to alleviate it. To see ourselves - if only for a moment - reflected in their lives.


The people we don’t know, however - those on the outer limits of our social connections - seem to exist in our minds as more abstractly human. Obviously, we know they are human and we can list things in common, but it’s hard to really feel them as human and to see ourselves reflected in quite the same way.


It is hard, in other words, to truly empathize.


There are variations here too, of course - individual factors that might make it more or less hard - but overall it seems clear, all of us have a point where our empathy fades. Where we are no longer able to think of someone as human and passively feel the same way. Where it becomes easier not to relate to joy, or more importantly, pain.


And it is here that I feel a need to reflect and realize what it means for it to be missing.


Because if our goal is to be socially responsible humans, then the fact that it is missing means rather a lot. It means among other things, that we are missing a key ingredient in the personal motivation required to be a part of socially responsible change. And it means we must work to actively cultivate what’s missing where it doesn’t already exist or exist in sufficient amounts.


To do this, I suggest that we have to first find an entry point to empathy. Something - even more than just being human - that is deeply personal to us that we share with people beyond our social limits. This is something that exists without regard to any perceived differences, especially if the group we’ve described as “people we know” is a homogenous one.


That something, then, becomes our foundation as we seek to understand the experiences of people we don’t know so that we can bridge that gap to more relatable. So that they move to the realm of more real and less abstract. So that we can actually begin to feel with them.


This is what I have had to do. Or more accurately, have only begun to try to do. And I’ll say upfront that it’s gritty work. Difficult. Developing a greater empathy necessarily opens you up to the struggles of others and your role in perpetuating them, but I can’t say enough what an important step it is to take that honest look. How meaningful it can be and how essential.


Only when we’ve done this can we hope to move forward together with everybody really onboard. Not just into another iteration of the same broken system with a different name, but to truly break the cycle and see real and lasting change.


To see real and lasting equality, justice, and freedom.

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