The Many Cocoons of Self In a Divided Society: Listening and Empathy

Where you at?  Or, more precisely: Where is your mind? Where is your heart? What are you listening to?  

There is a threshold in most of us: we can tolerate only so much; only muster so much empathy, only send our wishes or our checks and forget to give our precious time and attach ourselves to the imbalances on a personal level.  We are all busy.  We are all tired. We all feel like we’ve been dealt less than a pair of deuces.  I find it harder to obsess about societal problems or politics than I do to obsess about the NBA or television shows, music, or podcasts because these things have always been an outlet from the weight of the world.  Like most of us, I often feel powerless to the larger forces at work which dictate how American society runs: deep-rooted problems with our political system, educational system, the cultural diseases of racial and gender discrimination, homophobia, machismo, our collectively diminishing attention spans and our increasing obsession with technology.

Empathy dissolves in a constantly monetized and quantified world.  Black Friday as exhibit A.  The dream of consumptive power unleashed on an underfed populace.  The desire for electronic wizardry as a cloak from the abyss of loneliness.  The world of technology wraps us up in our powerlessness and cocoons us from reality, while under the guise of connecting.  And yet, here I am. The hypocrite calling out desperately into that same abyss.  To see if anyone might be listening to me.  If any voices are still heard over the white noise of modern life.

What we often seem to forget is that connecting and cultivating genuine relationships is the most complicated and worthwhile activity we can engage in.  I watch Bill Moyers’ show Moyers and Company and I listen to scholar Henry Giroux and I nod in agreement about public education and the dying practice of teaching creativity and critical thinking, the ideology of encouraging a creative and curious mind in children.  I listen to journalist Mark Leibovich  and I hear my own silent frustrations about the blurred line between the corporate world and the political world.  The lobbyist-driven legislation that dominates the D.C. landscape.

What have you?

The divide between the haves and the have-nots.  The line should be painfully clear to most Americans.  The problem is that the divide between those who have and those who do not have is only a problem for some of the haves.  The other half of the haves believe they belong on the top and those on the bottom belong on the bottom.  Occupy Wall Street happens.  People pay attention for a few weeks, a few months.  Later, Wall Street remains unoccupied and the haves who are its inhabitants bring it back to its casino capitalistic state.  The New York Times runs a series called “The Great Divide”.  More books on the decline of the middle class, some of which might be inspiring (George Packer’s The Unwinding seems like one), while hedge-funders claim that decline is “greatly exaggerated,” in order to rationalize their lifestyles.  We feel mostly powerless.

Are you aware of how singular your reality is?  How complex our realities are?

Instead of listening, we are now cocooning ourselves so completely, that we often seem to be forgetting two things:

1) By choosing to cut off the rest of the world, we risk losing sight of yourself, thinking you always know what will make ourselves happy and avoiding situations, decisions, and moments that are difficult (consider the teenage text-fiend who has rarely felt the warmth of silent eye contact).

2) We can choose to forget that other people have their own distinct versions of reality, some far more brutal that many of us would like to acknowledge.

A list of our old, timeless cocoons*: listening to music by ourselves, reading books, watching movies at home, playing solitaire or golf, living in large unattached suburban houses, addiction to solitary exercise, addictions to cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, sex, or pornography.

A list of our modern cocoons*: the internet in general, social media, online dating, blogging, Facebook “likes” and Twitter “followers,” texts, emails, video games, internet pornography, taking pictures of everything,

*warning: this list is not finished, nor has it been scientifically proven or strategically surveyed.

Some basic things our cocoons are doing to us: decreasing our ability to share public space reasonably, have the patience to drive, to walk on a sidewalk, or to wait in a line and recognize the human beings around you.  An inability to look people in the eye. An inability to share intimacy.  An inability to share silence.  An inability to just be.  An inability to share small talk with strangers. A generalized fear of the spontaneity of conversation.  An increasing desire to know exactly what you are getting before you commit to anything (control issues).  A need for immediate gratification and a constant threat of alienation.


It takes a conscious effort to be aware of how easily trapped we become in our habits.  I often fail.  I often forget how valuable patience can be.  I often indulge my own feelings. I often speak before thinking.  I often interrupt other people because I get so caught up in my own thoughts. I often forget to give myself time to sit.  To think. To feel.  To acknowledge all of the positive things. We live in a world that rarely tells us to do these things.  We have to remind ourselves how easy it is to slip into an unconscious, instantly-gratified, empathy-deprived state of mind.  Work against it.  Listen.  Interact. Respond.  Look into eyes.


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One thought on “The Many Cocoons of Self In a Divided Society: Listening and Empathy

  1. Tony Press says:

    “We have to remind ourselves how easy it is to slip into an unconscious, instantly-gratified, empathy-deprived state of mind. Work against it. Listen. Interact. Respond. Look into eyes.” This is a fitting conclusion to this excellent essay, and an important reminder for all of us. Some of those old, tired truisms stick around for a reason: Live each day, embrace the moments.

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