S’il te plaît… apprivoise-moi! — Relationships and responsibility

[Disclaimer: this post has been (heavily) edited on July 21, 2013]

In this post I want to reflect upon my current understanding of meaningful relationships. Before jumping into the topic however, I want to explain a bit about the first half of this post’s title… It comes from one of my (if not my most) favorite books: Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

For those of you who do not know the book, it is the story of a man in a desperate and life-threatening situation–having crash-landed his own, small airplane in the desert, and not having much water to survive. He meets “the little prince”, who through conversations reveals what I would call extremely valuable truths about life: how people treat their existence, and how if they treated it differently their experience could potentially be much richer and fulfilling. The language is poetic as well as naïve, in the sense that it seems to be written for children; but for me, with every reading as an adult, I still “learn” from it. Many times, I was able to rephrase my own life in the terms the book provides and “see with my heart” to what extent I was able or not to already incorporate the notions I consider relevant and worthwhile.

To illustrate and give one of the most profound ways in which I experience relationships, I want to quote from the book–in the original French with a few comments of mine. After his arrival on Earth, but before meeting the pilot and narrator of the book, the little prince with his wheat-colored hair also meets a fox and they share a conversation. This is a part of it:

“S’il te plaît… apprivoise-moi!” dit-il.

“Je veux bien,” répondit le petit prince, “mais je n’ai pas beaucoup de temps. J’ai des amis à découvrir et beaucoup de choses à connaitre.”

“On ne connaît que les choses que l’on apprivoise,” dit le renard. “Les hommes n’ont plus le temps de rien connaître. Ils achètent des choses toutes faites chez les marchands. Mais comme il n’existe point de marchands d’amis, les hommes n’ont plus d’amis. Si tu veux un ami, apprivoise-moi!”

So, in this first part of the conversation the fox tries to explain that it is worth “taming” someone, that is to say getting close to as a friend; in fact it is the only way to make a friend, by spending time with and on someone. It is followed by an explanation on what exactly entails taming: the slow and deliberate process of establishing mutual benevolence, respect, trust, limits, rituals, and allowing natural and intuitive reliance on these relationship foundations to form over time. The little prince engages in this process, and by the end of it, evidenced by the following (shortened) dialog, has successfully tamed the fox:

(…) Et quand l’heure du départ fut proche:

“Ah!” dit le renard… “Je pleurerai.”

“C’est ta faute,” dit le petit prince, “je ne te souhaitais point de mal, mais tu as voulu que je t’apprivoise…”

“Bien sûr,” dit le renard.

“Mais tu vas pleurer!” dit le petit prince.

“Bien sûr,” dit le renard.

“Alors tu n’y gagnes rien!”

“J’y gagne,” dit le renard, “à cause de la couleur du blé.” (…) “Va revoir les roses. Tu comprendras que la tienne est unique au monde. Tu reviendras me dire adieu, et je te ferai cadeau d’un secret.”

(…) Et il revint vers le renard:

“Adieu,” dit-il…

“Adieu,” dit le renard. “Voici mon secret. Il est très simple: on ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.” (…) “C’est le temps que tu a perdu pour ta rose qui fait ta rose si importante.” (…) “Les hommes ont oublié cette vérité,” dit le renard. “Mais tu ne dois pas l’oublier. Tu deviens responsable pour toujours de ce que tu as apprivoisé. Tu es responsable de ta rose…”

In other words, once someone has been tamed as a friend, he or she will always remain special and, as the fox says, we remain responsible for keeping it that way. At the very end of the book, the author reflects on how meeting the little prince will always be a source of joy and meaning for his own life. And with that in mind, I am turning to some of my experiences…

About five years ago, only a few months after arriving in New York–and the United States for that matter–I got to know my first ever boyfriend. While it may not have been love at first sight, we developed a great sense of comfort, and despite our differences I think it is fair to say that we tamed one another: we allowed ourselves to become vulnerable, to rely on those elements of friendship and be hurt by their absence. Over time, we both experienced hurt and pain, and looking back I would say the biggest factor in the prolonged pain was a lack of determination and courage to communicate some of the aspects that were lacking or remained unsatisfactory. At some point I felt this relationship to be no longer adequately taking care of some of my needs. At first this was unconscious, and only too late it became fully visible to me.

Unfortunately, this lack of courage didn’t allow me to communicate this sense of dissatisfaction better with my boyfriend of then four years. I very unceremoniously and not at all truth-fully broke up with him. However, both due to the fact that we had tamed one another as well as my not being able to fully appreciate and boldly accept some of my needs–in part driven by very early childhood experiences, I believe–I decided to get back together to my ex-boyfriend, only to fail again…

From the past few months, I have learned it is essential for me that, once someone opens up to me and makes him or herself vulnerable, I do actually want to accept at least part of the responsibility for how he or she becomes fragile and that I want to take care of their needs and feelings, at least to the point that is part of the promise made during the taming. And now I simply have to accept that I cannot take anything back that I did, but want to look into the future and remain open in case my caring is appreciated and wanted. So, as one important life lesson learned: after breaking up with someone, I don’t want to cut the other person off.

The relationship between friendship and altruism as well as empathy

Next week Saturday, June 8, the Helix Center will host a public Roundtable on the topic of Altruism and Empathy. Since I decided to go, I’ve been thinking about both of these concepts and how they relate to friendship and other relationships humans engage in. And as part of a pet project of my own, a neurocomputational model that I’m working on, I would argue that while many people seem to believe that altruism is related to or even based on empathy, I would argue not only that altruism itself is actually different from and unrelated to empathy, but that they are two very different types of concepts:

For me, empathy is the cognitive capability to correctly recognize emotional and motivational states in others. That is to say, someone who is high in empathy is able to correctly assess how someone else is feeling and what motivational components, such as desires, fears, goals, or plans, are in that other person’s mind. As said in the teaser to the roundtable, this capability is thought of to develop more or less naturally during childhood, but the degree to which people are capable of employing this cognitive capacity varies.

On the other hand, altruism for me is what I would call a set of values, desires, wishes, and subsequent goals that allow people to make choices which incorporate other people’s needs and wishes into their decisions to a greater extent. In other words, someone high in altruism will care about other people’s needs more strongly.

Why do I believe these concepts to be unrelated? First, from a theoretical point of view, empathy seems to be an ability or function rather than a value or parameter. I consider the difference roughly that of the ability of driving a car–without accidents, that is to say knowing how to drive safely–and liking old-timers. Both are certainly related to a common theme, cars, but one of them is a capability, the other one is more of a passion or personal value. And equally as I think that some people are damn good drivers but don’t care about old-timers, I would suggest there are people who care about old-timers but haven’t driven a car once.

The same is true I think for empathy and altruism: both are related to social interactions. However, I believe there are people who are high in empathy and low in altruism, and I believe there are people who are low in empathy but high in altruism. The former group I would say might be extremely well suited to be salesmen, spokespeople for corporations, politicians, debaters, attorneys, in short representatives of interests that are not their own and, to a substantial degree, are contrary to the interests of those they argue with. Why? Well, a high degree of empathy will allow someone to correctly identify how I feel, and paired with a high level of intelligence such a person could then make shrewd but potentially highly accurate guesses as to what it is I want to hear to satisfy a need I am currently experiencing. Once this need is satisfied, I will be more willing to engage in a quid pro quo exchange.

The latter group would be more suited to engage in activities that may not require always knowing perfectly well how someone is feeling at the moment, but having a good routine and functional understanding of people’s needs, thus allowing an interaction to be helpful for someone, even if it is not necessarily experienced as friendly. Professions I would put into this category certainly include military personnel, and to a somewhat lower degree also people working in healthcare, particularly those only interacting with patients to a small extent, such as anesthesiologists, radiologists, cardiologists, in short doctors who are highly specialized and usually only see patients in very particular situations. Obviously it would be desirable to be high on both traits for those professions, but I would yet rather be treated by someone who truly cares rather than someone who only seems to care.

Finally, getting to the actual topic of my post, I would say that the way people differ in altruism and empathy has a huge impact on their friendships. My strong hunch–and I will investigate this further–would be that people high in empathy have many, many friends. In fact, I would guess that people high in empathy are extremely popular among their friends, as they seem to always know how someone feels, which really is helpful if I want someone to talk to. They are understanding and can correctly identify my needs and thus help me figure out things. However, I would say that the number of friends does not necessarily translate into the quality or depth of friendships…

On the other hand, I would say that someone high in altruism will have very strong friendships. Those friendships may be very, very few, particularly for people who are also low on empathy, given that it is difficult to develop a friendship without the capability of reading someone’s emotions. It would seem that without empathy others would think of that person as a bit “out of touch” with them, and would have little motivation to share something personal. However, if for some reason an interaction were to happen, it is very likely that after a short while the other person would realize the great amount of care and good-will on the other side and take the scruffiness with a grain of salt but form a solid friendship. And given the willingness to give up personal gain for someone else’s needs, the friendship has a good chance to stand the test of time and deepen.

As a last comment, I do believe that being high in empathy will make someone who is also high in altruism a much more effective care-giver, as it allows this person to correctly identify needs and desires in others. But that simply doesn’t mean the person cares more than someone who is low in empathy or that they know better what needs to be done as part of the caring. It simply means that they know better how to translate their care into actions that are perceived as caring, something that enhances the experience of being cared for.