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​​What Boardwalk Empire can teach us about empathy

Ash and I have been indulging in some winter series watching - it's SO good. Specifically, we're watching Boardwalk Empire, which is about bootleggers, corruption, and all sorts of other skullduggery in Atlantic City back in the 1920s. The main character in the movie is a gentleman called Nucky Thompson, who is in equal parts a corrupt politician and a gangster. He has people killed without a second thought, he is consistently unfaithful to his partner, he cheats, he lies, and he is generally not someone I would ever want to spend time with. And yet, I find myself on the edge of my seat rooting for him to win. When he's in trouble, I'm the one cheering for him to make it out the other side of whatever threat he's facing.

What the actual?

Because the story is told from his perspective, as a viewer we get to see under the hood of what's driving his behaviour. His difficult upbringing, how he lost his wife (while she was pregnant) when he was younger, how the people around him treat him like a means to an end, and how the jealousy of his brother leads him to double cross him time and time again.

As a viewer, we also get to see the deep care and love he has for the people closest to him. The stress that he incurs trying to keep his complex web of lies and corruption together, and the seemingly bottomless emotional pit that he is trying to fill with money, booze and power. Underneath it all we get to see the hurt little boy who just wants to be loved, held and told that he's good enough just as he is.

What I appreciate about movies is that they give us a first hand experience of developing empathy for the main character. If it's a secondary or tertiary character, we never feel the same level of empathy. Why? Because we've seen less of them in the movie and therefore have less context of their lives - as a result we can't empathise with them to the same extent.

By seeing the world through the main character's eyes, no matter how awful they are, we can empathise with their situation. We've walked a mile in their shoes, and as a result find it difficult to judge them harshly.

With this backdrop I'd like to volunteer a fairly bold statement:

No one ever does anything which they feel cannot be justified at that precise moment.

No matter how messed up someone's actions are, on some level they feel like they can justify their behaviour in the exact moment it happens. They might regret it (even moments) later, they might feel shame about it later, but in the moment, we would never do something that we didn't feel was justified in the moment.

Think about the actions you've taken in your life which you later regretted. Even if you had to follow a pretty distorted line of logic to justify your behaviour at the time, and even if somewhere in your subconscious you knew that what you were about to do was wrong and you would regret it later... at some level you were still able to convince yourself that your actions were justified, and so you followed through.

Our psyches are pretty damn complex, and much of what drives our behaviour is below the level of conscious awareness. It takes a lot of work, bravery and humility to surface the subtle workings of our minds, and it takes many lifetimes to see the world clearly enough to align our thoughts, words and actions in every moment. In fact, I would argue that we never truly get there.

Next time someone wrongs you, the invitation here is to place that person at the centre of a movie you're watching about their life. See flashbacks of their childhood, see the hurt they carry, see the insecurities they're trying to overcome. See that, like the rest of us, they're also just trying to figure out how the heck the world works.

Does this mean that you should put up with bad behaviour? Not for a second. Rather, it creates some distance between you and their actions, which are very rarely about you, and more often about their own hurt and suffering. If you could see the full movie of their life, you may well understand why they are doing what they're doing.

Empathy is an important step on the road to compassion, and compassion is the best tool we have available to us to move beyond the binary labelling and snap judgement/classification that is so prevalent in modern culture.

We’re all trying our best.


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