A young woman wants to quit her 9-to-5 job at IBM and be a freelance writer. She tells her mother the job is destroying her soul. The shift will make her feel more ‘integrated’ with her true nature that is buried somewhere inside her. Her mother, usually deeply sensitive, calls the move ‘rash’ and tells her it might be better for her to ‘experiment’ once she has settled down, which implies marriage to a man of means. The woman wonders how her mother, usually so attuned to emotional suffering, can say something so dehumanizing. It is almost as if her mother doesn’t ‘see’ her. An emotional chasm is created. It is fueled by feelings of superiority and resentment in the young woman.
It can be easy to think of ourselves as ‘empaths’ or emotionally evolved individuals in comparison to the previous generation. But we ought to pause and consider the emotional education privileges we enjoyed while coming of age in the last decade. And the fact that our emotional education may be incomplete.
#1 The privilege of information
Studies indicate we receive five times more information today than thirty years ago. This means we can access emotional education quickly and know ourselves better. If we always feel we are surrounded by stupid people, and we then encounter an online article about narcissism, it can give us pause. We could then take an online test to determine if we had narcissistic tendencies. If we found out we did harbor these tendencies, we could learn about how to keep our narcissism in check. All this creates an instant, living framework of self-awareness and change – something our elders could never imagine.
#2 The privilege of travel
In 2019, the average millennial (ages 21-37) planned on taking roughly 5 trips a year, according to AARP’s 2019 Travel Trends report. This is despite student debt. Cost effective stay options, flexible work, and the lack of children make it easier. Travel brings us into contact with cognitive and emotional diversity. This, in turn, makes it easier for us to become more aware and empathetic. By comparison, our parents travelled much less as they had fewer options, not to mention the fact that the money (from probably a sole earner) had to be saved for more crucial expenditures.
#3 The privilege of leisure
It is true that work has become less structured and hence, busier. But the space for leisure has also increased. We have the option of getting our groceries, our laundry, our food, our cabs and even the answer to the dreaded plumbing crisis – all delivered to our doorstep. Plus, our generation is having fewer children owing to lifestyle changes, the desire for psychological and financial freedom, and heightened environmental consciousness. This leaves us with a lot of time to consume improving books and shows, and to have illuminating conversations with people anywhere – all of which can result in greater command over our emotional life. By contrast, our elders had very little leisure and hence less time for reflection, a key gateway to a healthier emotional life.
#4 The privilege of analysis
Twenty years ago, seeing a counsellor was a sign we were damaged goods. And seeing a psychiatrist was a shameful admission that we had profoundly failed as professionals and humans, unable to pull our weight in creating a happy, balanced society. Today, analysis is seen as worthwhile, perhaps even normal. We are readier to accept that 1) we are terribly flawed and 2) we can become aware and create change through the restorative effects of psychoanalysis, art therapy, movement therapy, forest bathing, and many other modes of healing. Our elders did not invest in this cult of the ever-improving self where every thought and emotion could be scrutinized and then be either healed or sublimated into something acceptable. Many of them lived (and continue to live) with the darkest corners of their psyches unlit.
#5 The privilege of following passions
More than any generation before us, we have normalized (with good effect) the practice of pursuing passions in order to lead more meaningful lives. Whether this philosophy has long-range economic benefits is a continuing bone of contention. But the fact remains that we are self-actualizing at a younger age than our elders. This creates more internal awareness and greater levels of emotional intelligence. On the other hand, our elders had to ‘suck up’ jobs and lifestyles they didn’t like because of family expectations and debt. The word ‘passion’ was perhaps a luxury in their emotional vocabulary. As a result, they had no choice but to take the longer and more traditional route to self-actualization, as captured in the Maslow hierarchy.
#6 The privilege of no religion
When our elders were confused, the path of least resistance tended to be the religious path. Religious rituals have a calming, streamlining effect. But religion alone isn’t always the best tool to mirror our complex, subjective psychology back at us. Culture can help. A painting by Edward Hopper, a movie by Paul Thomas Anderson or a story by Clarice Lispector may all teach us about the nature of loneliness or delusion or passion in ways no scripture can. Our generation has had the time and the awareness to consume much more culture and sometimes even substitute scripture for culture, leading to a more nuanced grasp of human diversity and frailty.
Taken together, these 6 privileges create a very conducive structure for greater self-awareness, other-awareness, emotional regulation, and empathy. Of course, the presence of this structure doesn’t automatically indicate an empath breeding ground. But the fact remains that the enabling conditions are in abundance, compared to decades ago. This is why it sometimes feels as though your emotional vocabulary is broader and deeper than, say, that of your parent or aunt.
The way forward: A hybrid emotional intelligence
But, far from making us feel superior, it should teach us humility and the value of collaboration. Because, as always, our knowledge is dreadfully inadequate and we can learn a lot emotionally from the previous generation. For example, the other day a friend narrated an anecdote to me.
She got into an argument with her father about the proper protocols in dealing with some guests who had come home. Her father pointed out, after the event, that very elderly guests had been placed at the far end of the dining table, thus effectively cutting them off from the youthful conversation at the center. My friend argued that this wasn’t a big deal, that people shouldn’t get so ‘sensitive’. Her father countered by saying the elderly relatives’ feelings may have been hurt.
It is easy for the present generation to consider this problem trivial. After all, if we were placed at the far end of a dining table, we wouldn’t take offence. We draw self-esteem from other sources. Moreover, we have our phones to browse. But perhaps this is not the case with a much older generation that could require more overt ways of inclusion in a social setting. So, in this situation, for instance, we could combine the diverse content of generational emotional intelligences and arrive at a more hybrid empathy that takes into account self-awareness and tradition.
This is the exciting empathetic possibility before us. To bridge emotional intelligences and arrive at more hybrid ways of thinking, feeling and being. And, as always, the best laboratory to begin this work is in our own homes, with our families. If we can be aware of our emotional education privileges when interacting with families and be open to their emotional codes, we can create a reliable foundation for a more inclusive and radical empathy towards the wider world.