I recently had the opportunity to talk out loud on the phone with a friend I’ve been talking to in my head and that I’ve known through social media for over a decade. We talked about how, and why we try to hold empathy for those who see reality in diametrically opposed ways. (And talking to her in real life was just as lovely has it has been talking to her in my head.)

The result is this essay written by Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom for her inaugural New York Times newsletter.


When I asked Martha to help me with my empathy, she started with the topic of grief. If you are like me, struggling with empathy as the world seems to split apart at its social seams, Martha’s perspective may help guide you back to a version of yourself that you can live with.

She suggests that the anti-science, narcissistic, antisocial Covid deniers are displaying a collective grief response. We are all grieving the loss of big things and small things. But some of us are rushing into a collective denial of death and loss. That grief wears differently on people, depending on what self they brought to the grieving process. And living in an individualistic society that values health as a moral good is not helping.

Dr. Cottom had her own astute reasons for trying to preserve her empathy, and I encourage you to read her thoughts.

When empathy atrophies, so does curiosity.

When empathy dies, so does humility.

Most of us do not know when we are using solid reasoning or when we are caught up in rationalizing. Our thinking function is conscripted by a visceral reactive certainty a lot – maybe most – of the time. This instinctive certainty can be a formed or malformed response that may either allow us to react quickly to threats in our immediate environment, or may cause us to profoundly misperceive reality. Our discernment is distorted by such things as traumatic history of  betrayal, violation or harm by authority figures, by disinformation, by exploitation and oppression and manipulation.

Most of us test our reasoning out with others for confirmation, and almost all of us, in the throes of a trauma or fear response, will seek out reference points and relationships that validate our gut instincts.We are all capable of, and regularly get swept up in a flock that is flying in the wrong direction. 

There are bad actors and those who embrace explicit cruelty in every community. Psychopathy is an archetypal, and therefore universal aspect of the self. Evil exists in anyone and everyone and in our own selves. Evil is not merely manifest in “the other.”  And there are lots of folks who are just lost and panicked whether they admit it or not, and everyone is looking for some body of thought to hang onto as “good and true.” There are many kinds of wounds, many kinds of reflexive, instinctive unexamined responses, many different shapes to our collective fears, many kinds of projections and everyone yearning for simple, clear, concrete moral binaries to save them in the midst of a whirlwind.

We all have and will be tempted to grab at a falsehood, cling to it and demand that it be true until we are forced to come to terms with the uncertainty of it all. I’ve seen it in myself and others and in the entire flock more times than I can count, and through other frightening, deadly and novel diseases.

We are a messy confused, reactive, frightened, aggressive species. And we are most dangerous when we are certain.

We all cover our ears and close our eyes to terrible truths: 
“Death isn’t real. The people I love won’t die. There is no death. I won’t die.” 
Anyone who imagines that they always think clearly and behave rationally, doesn’t.
Maybe I am, or am not making the biggest mess this time.  I’ll stand for what I believe is true, but hopefully always with the humbling memory that I have over the course of my life, stood for “truths”  that were wholly wrong or necessarily incomplete, both factually and morally.
I’ve made unconscious, reactive messes before, I’ve inflicted harms unconsciously – maybe especially – when I am certain that I haven’t.
And I will again because I am a human animal.
All the birds, and every bird, may fly in the wrong direction.