Cultivating Empathy for the NEXT Crisis
A central question for this moment in history is how do we collectively navigate a crescendoing wave of crises and move toward planetary resilience and thriving?
Cultivating Empathy for the NEXT Crisis
By Joe Brewer /

There will be more crises, a lot more of them. It’s going to happen again and again. And we all know it. This frightening truth keeps staring us in the face and we need to admit it to ourselves. So we had better be prepared for the next crisis… and the next one after that. Because there are going to be a lot of them.

Another mass shooting in the United States? It’s already been described as a cultural epidemic for years. That trend is growing not declining. Get ready for it by finding compassion for yourself.

Natural disaster strikes another major city? The science of global warming made it clear decades ago that this is only going to happen more often and with greater intensity. Be prepared by understanding what is happening to our precious world.

Hate targeted at a marginalized group? Turbulent social change breeds unrest among those who cling to rigid ideologies. Many feel powerless in the face of change and lash out when the stress becomes too much for them to handle. And the pace of change is creating a LOT of stress. Be informed about the cultural logic of oppression and marginalization.

Rise of authoritarian rulers? This is just what we should expect from fear-based media seeking to profit off wave after wave of emerging crisis. During times of uncertainty and hardship, it is well known that people look for simple answers and strong leaders. Be ready to take a stand and say no during these precarious moments.

It doesn’t help to say “never again” after an unspeakable event like the recent Orlando shooting or the Syrian refugee crisis — because the trajectories guiding our civilization right now are making crises more likely, not less, and we need to be emotionally capable of dealing with them.

Now is the time for admitting the painful truth that we are living through unprecedented global change. The world needs grown ups capable of doing what is needed to care for and support others around them when the going gets rough.

And the going has already gotten rough.

A central question for this moment in history is how do we collectively navigate a crescendoing wave of crises and move toward planetary resilience and thriving?

This is not an intellectual exercise. It won’t appear on an exam. It is raw and rugged, quivering in our fingers and pulsating in our veins. And it is very real with consequences bubbling up that will ripple across the rest of our lives.

I feel it right now in the emotional fatigue hanging like a glue over my body after several days of tracking social media coverage for the epidemic of gun violence in the United States. It gives me headaches and makes it hard to sleep at night. I see it in the impulsive outbursts of anger on my Facebook feeds. In the quickening pace of looking for ways to blame someone, anyone, who might be responsible for the latest travesty. Through the polarization of our communities into “us versus them” that divide us against the very people who might be capable of offering fresh perspectives and new ideas for how to deal with all the problems we are experiencing.

The first step is to acknowledge what is going on. Humanity is going through a “phase transition” from the explosive growth of economies in the 20th Century that pushed us beyond planetary limits. We are moving through the crucible of transformation as old systems built in the paradigm that fueled that growth begin to break down around us. And if we are wise stewards of the process in our own lives, we can navigate this cultural storm and find safe harbor on the other side.

But we cannot pretend it isn’t happening.

So I encourage all of you out there to take a moment and breath it in. Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow is coming. And it is our task — those of us alive in the early 21st Century — to ride out the storm keeping our humanity intact. This means we need to know with certainty what it means to be human.

Being Human = Thinking, Feeling, Living in Communities

There are a lot of people spreading false stories about what it means to be human. They tell us we are greedy and selfish, that our primary motivation is to “maximize self-interest”, and that the world is made up exclusively of individuals seeking profit for themselves.

I know who these people are. They organize themselves as the Mont Pelerin Society and have for decades (since their inception in 1947) built up networks of think tanks, media outlets, university faculty positions, and more — via a 1971 strategy document known as the Powell Memo — with the goal of telling this false story about humanity to enable themselves to profit from the mayhem that would follow if enough people came to believe it was true.

Well that is exactly what happened in the 1980’s and 90’s. If humans are selfish and greedy, the best bet for society is to unleash our greed and hope it does well for everyone. Deregulate financial markets so the rich can “invest” in ways that bring them more wealth. Cut taxes and neglect schools, roads, hospitals (anything that benefits the masses) so that everyone feels like they have to go it alone. Then divide these suffering people against each other using the tools of wartime propaganda.

The crises we are going through now may have happened anyway, as a natural consequence of explosive population growth. But many of them are much worse as a direct consequence of the wealth hoarding, social inequality, and environmental harms unloaded onto the world so a tiny few could accumulate massive profits.

As hard as it may be, we even need to have empathy for these people — the ones who seek to profit off our suffering. Because this is how we dispell the power of their stories and transcend them.

Now is the time to tell a different story. One based on the best of our knowledge rather than the worst of our moral failings. Humans are profoundly social. We are born vulnerable and absolutely depend on adult caregivers for our survival in our early years and throughout our lives. We are profoundly moral. We feel inequality as a physical stress and seek fairness in our dealings with others.

Humans are wired for empathy, which is why it hurts so much to see the suffering of others when a new crisis strikes. And herein lies the pathway to our salvation. We can bring comfort to one another. Give hugs and words of moral support when needed. Offer a hand up to those in need. Lift our own hand in need when we reach the limits ourselves.

Yes, we can cultivate empathy. Behavioral scientists have developed tools for it. Doctors and nurses practice it in the care of infants, healing the sick, and honoring the dying with respect and dignity. Teachers find human connection with the learning journeys of students. Police officers and military personnel find strength to face dangers and get people out of harm’s way…

I could go on and on.

The point is that there will be more crises and we can cultivate empathy to prepare us for the ones that haven’t come along yet. Doing so will require that we embrace our full humanity and reject the stories that lie to us about what it really means to be human.

We can do this, fellow humans. I believe in our capacity to push through to the other side. Hopefully this article bolsters that belief in a few of more of you. There are now millions of us working hard to guide our civilization through the largest process of social change the Earth has ever known. You are not alone.

We can do this together — all 7.4 billion of us.

Joe Brewer -- I am a change strategist working on behalf of humanity, and also a complexity researcher, cognitive scientist, and evangelist for the field of culture design.

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Cultivating Empathy for the NEXT Crisis