The “Empathic Rationalist” got its name from my first novel, The Creed Room, in which a group of ethnically and ideologically diverse individuals were brought together and challenged with a single task. Collectively, they could earn hundreds of thousands of dollars, but in order to claim the money, they needed to agree upon a single overarching world view. They met the challenge, and called their creed “Empathic Rationalism.” Summarizing this world view in a single sentence, they said, “Let passion be your sail, reason your keel, and empathy your rudder.”
Ask any seaman. We use a sail to propel ourselves forward, a keel to keep from falling apart, and a rudder to steer in the best direction. Because these functions are all critical, it’s difficult to call one more important than the others. But in a sense, one is. You see, everyone recognizes the need for an excellent sail or else they won’t get very far in life. And we all see a need for an excellent keel because there’s nothing worse in life than falling apart. Yet it’s easy to ignore the value of an excellent rudder. After all, as long as you can propel yourself forward and maintain at least some amount of control, you can easily convince yourself that you’re heading in the right direction, even if you’re not. This is what happens when we let our charismatic friends steer us, even if their wisdom doesn’t match their charisma, or when we allow ourselves to be guided by some of the baser values of our society, or perhaps even by our own superstitions or delusions. So, for example, our society is currently propelled by mass quantities of fossil fuels (the sail) but because things haven’t totally fallen apart and we can point to a “vibrant economy” as a sign of our successes, we can ignore the dangers ahead and satisfy ourselves that all is well, even if it’s not.
This is where an excellent rudder enters the equation. At sea, it means that the seaman is choosing wisely where to travel. More generally, the person who takes care of her rudder chooses wisely how to live. In The Creed Room, the participants couldn’t agree on everything. But they could agree that if we must select one quality to help steer people in our society wisely, that quality would be empathy. It’s a quality that’s easily enough ignored – individuals don’t need empathy to get fame, fortune or even honors. But we ignore this quality at our own peril. We see the lack of empathy every day when we read the newspaper. It’s reflected in the extent of our political polarization, xenophobia, racism, sexism, classism, you name it. It’s reflected in the notion that the “other” is our enemy. Even the so-called “liberals” show their lack of empathy by tuning into entertainment shows that are devoted primarily to ridiculing their political opponents.
Empathy is indeed hard to come by in our society, or so it appears. But this quality is precisely what makes any civilization humane, just, and ultimately at peace. In other words, if we continue to ignore this rudder, we will soon enough find fault with our keel (including our commitment to civility and community), and the rest will be history.
“The first phase of the program focuses on a student’s personal identity and sense of individuality. It asserts self-worth and an awareness of one’s uniqueness. The second phase explores the unique value of ‘other’ human beings, both those who are ‘like me’ and those who are ‘unlike me,’ however that is defined. It focuses on how we bring value to one another’s lives, what we miss out on when we exclude people from our lives before getting to know them, and what others might need from us. The third phase focuses on how we are all members of community, what we gain from that, and what [we] owe to it.
“The training employs rhythm, movement, drums, improvisational role-playing, creative writing, story-telling and many other forms of experiential learning.
“The program asserts the inestimable worth of individuals regardless of age, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, intellectual ability, economic bracket, etc. It encourages students to build bridges among and within disparate communities and to work toward creating a new, vibrant human community which embraces all.”