The Capacity for Empathy

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CATEGORY: Student Life
TYPE: Articles
RELATED PROGRAMS: President

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Published in Macalester Today

President Brian Rosenberg delivered the following remarks to the Class of 2013 at their May 18, 2013, Commencement.

After two decades of formal education and three decades in academia, I have come to the conclusion that there are two canonical texts within which most of life’s essential lessons are captured: Seinfeld and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. This is not to say that either sitcom fully plumbs the murky depths of human experience, but rather that if one were dropped from the sky with no knowledge of this peculiar and perplexing world we inhabit, one could do worse than begin with the ruminations of George Costanza, Lou Grant, and their companions.

It was Jerry Seinfeld, for example, who observed that “sometimes the road less traveled is less traveled for a reason,” about as good a bit of advice for new college graduates as I have heard in a long time. And then there’s Ted Baxter, whose philosophical stylings included the following: “It’s actually tomorrow in Tokyo. Do you realize that there are people alive here in Minneapolis who are already dead in Tokyo?”—a conundrum with the philosophical purity of a Zen koan.

By the way, I should note that it is a source of wonderment to me that most of today’s graduating seniors were born the year Seinfeld debuted on television and know Mary Tyler Moore, if they know her at all, only as the woman with the botoxed face who appears on late night infomercials. This tells me that I am old, and that seems somehow fundamentally wrong. The particular passage I want to cite this afternoon is drawn from an exchange between Lou Grant and Ted Baxter just before Ted’s marriage to the inestimable Georgette. Ted is seeking advice from Lou about how to live happily within a committed relationship. Lou pauses, stumped momentarily by the question, and then begins the following exchange:

Lou: Here’s the most important piece of advice I can give you. If you’re gonna get married, you’re gonna have to stop acting the way you do.
Ted: What way?
Lou: The way you act. Ted, what I’m trying to say is…you gotta become different.
Ted: Lou…I, I don’t think I understand.
Lou: Look, you know how you always are?
Ted: Yeah?
Lou: Don’t be that way.

Now trust me, this is profound stuff.

I don’t think Lou is telling Ted that he should not be true to himself. (Well, maybe in this case he is, since Ted is a self-centered idiot. But let’s assume for the sake of my charge to the graduating class that he is not.) Let’s assume that what he is actually saying is that if we are to successfully engage in relationships, communities, problem-solving, and meaningful work, we must possess the ability to step out of ourselves, at least for a time, and see the world in ways that may seem deeply unfamiliar.

It is not always enough merely to “be yourself,” which may be among the most over-used and misused pieces of advice ever given. Being yourself is relatively easy: You have had lots of practice and it isn’t much of an imaginative stretch. Sometimes it is more important to “be,” or grasp what it is to be, other people with other perspectives, other beliefs, other ways of apprehending the world. Our greatest moral philosophers and artists and humanitarians have been telling us this for a long time. It is what John Keats meant when he spoke of the poet’s gift of “negative capability,” that is, the power to temporarily negate the self and experience life through another’s perspective. It is what Kofi Annan meant when he defined what he called “a citizen of the world in the fullest sense—one whose vision and culture gave him a deep empathy with fellow human beings of every creed and color.” And it is certainly what the wonderful novelist Ian McEwan meant when he wrote, “Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.”

If there is a single trait with which I hope you leave Macalester, if there is a single ability I hope we have fostered and strengthened, it is the capacity for empathy. With it you can resolve even passionate disputes; without it you will speak only to yourself and those who agree with you. With it you will treat others with respect and compassion; without it you are liable to become trapped within the echo chambers of on-line communities that are anything but truly communal. With it you can form deep connections; without it you run the risk of contracting what Kurt Vonnegut called “the terrible disease of loneliness.”

It is easy, with all the opportunities you have been afforded, to understand things. It is harder to be understanding. And the hard things tend to be the valuable ones.

In the spirit of negative capability, I should end by acknowledging that there is another perspective on all this—what one might call the Seinfeld perspective. It was Jerry Seinfeld who defined the “true spirit of Christmas” as “people being helped by people other than me,” and a perplexed George Costanza who asked, “Why would we want to help somebody? That’s what nuns and Red Cross workers are for.”

Your life. Your choice. I know you will make the right one. Just…be yourself.

Brian Rosenberg is the president of Macalester College. He can be reached at

PUBLISHED: 07/25/2013