Apathy, Sympathy, and Empathy in Books

This is an update of a post that originally appeared on May 23, 2016.

I’ve written more than a few times about the role that emotion plays in books, even technical books. Technical books such as Accessibility for Everybody: Understanding the Section 508 Accessibility Requirements and Machine Learning Security Principles are tough to write because they’re packed with emotion. The author not only must convey emotion and evoke emotions in the reader, but explore the emotion behind the writing. In this case, the author’s emotions may actually cause problems with the book content. The writing is tiring because the author experiences emotions in the creation of the text. The roller-coaster of emotions tends to take a toll. Three common emotions that authors experience in the writing of a book and that authors convey to the reader as part of communicating the content are apathy, sympathy, and empathy. These three emotions can play a significant role in the suitability of the book’s content in helping readers discover something new about the people they support, themselves, and even the author.

It’s a mistake to feel apathy toward any technical topic. Writers need to consider the ramifications of the content and how it affects both the reader and the people that the reader serve. For example, during the writing of Artificial Intelligence for Dummies, 2nd Edition, Python for Data Science for Dummies, and Machine Learning for Dummies, 2nd Edition Luca and I discussed the potential issues that automation creates for the people who use it and those who are replaced by it in the job market. Considering how to approach automation in an ethical manner is essential to creating a positive view of the technology that helps people use it for good. Even though apathy is often associated with no emotion at all, people are emotional creatures and apathy often results in an arrogant or narcissistic attitude. Not caring about a topic isn’t an option.

I once worked with an amazing technical editor who told me more than a few times that people don’t want my sympathy. When you look at sympathy in the dictionary, the result of having sympathy toward someone would seem positive, but after more than a few exercises to demonstrate the effects of sympathy on stakeholders with disabilities, I concluded that the technical editor was correct—no one wanted my sympathy. The reason is simple when you think about it. The connotation of sympathy is that you’re on the outside looking in and feel pity for the person struggling to complete a task. Sympathy makes the person who engages in it feel better, but does nothing for the intended recipient except make them feel worse. However, sympathy is still better than apathy because at least you have focused your attention on the person who benefits from the result of your writing efforts.

Empathy is often introduced as a synonym of sympathy, but the connotation and effects of empathy are far different from sympathy. When you feel empathy and convey that emotion in your writing, you are on the inside, with the person you’re writing for, looking out. Putting yourself in the position of the people you want to help is potentially the hardest thing you can do and certainly the most tiring. However, it also does the most good.

Empathy helps you understand that someone who loses a job to automation isn’t looking for a new career, the old one worked just fine. The future doesn’t look bright at all to them. Likewise, some with disabilities isn’t looking for a handout and they don’t want you to perform the task for them. They may, in fact, not feel as if they have a disability at all. It was the realization that using technology to create a level playing field so that the people I wanted to help could help themselves and feel empowered by their actions that opened new vistas for me. The experience has colored every book I’ve written since the first time I came to realize that empathy is the correct emotion to convey and my books all try to convey emotion in a manner that empowers, rather than saps, the strength the my reader and the people my reader serves.

Obviously, a good author has more than three emotions. In fact, the toolbox of emotions that an author carries are nearly limitless and its wise to employ them all as needed. However, these three emotions have a particular role to play and are often misunderstood by authors. Let me know your thoughts on these three emotions or about emotions in general at [email protected].

Contemplating a Future with Robots

Robots will eventually become a part of our society. In fact, in many ways they already are. It may not seem like a very auspicious start, but products from iRobot like the Roomba are already making their way into many homes. The Roomba will clean your floors for you without ever complaining. It started with a vacuum system, but now I notice you can get a Roomba for mopping too. The point is that robots will very likely continue to enter homes to perform less skilled work.

Then again, there is a pressing need for certain kinds of skilled help. Japan is hoping that Softbank’s Pepper will help address a continuing problem of finding someone to help the elderly. In fact, finding people to act as caregivers to the elderly is going to become a problem in many areas of the world where the birth rate is decreasing and the average age is increasing.

For me, robots have always been an answer to the pressing needs of those with special needs. I’ve always seen computer technology as a means of leveling the playing field for everyone. A properly configured computer can make it possible for someone to earn a living and live independently, but simply having a computer or a computer with a robotic arm isn’t enough for everyone. Autonomous robots that can call for help when needed will make it possible for people with greater needs to remain independent and well cared for by an entity that will never get frustrated or lose patience with them. When a human caregiver is needed, they can simply take over the robot and help the patient from a remote location until help can arrive.

As with any scientific endeavor, there are those who are impatient to see something more substantial arrive. Some are even asking why robots haven’t become better integrated into society yet. The days of I Robot and The Bicentennial Man are a long way off yet (even with Robin Williams’ brilliant presentation). The fact is that interaction with an environment is far more complex than we ever thought (making it easier to appreciate just how much the human body can do, even when less than perfect). However, robots are making progress in other areas. For example, one robot recently repaired another, which is an exciting advancement.

I think it’s good that adoption of robot technology is going slowly. There are many social and political issues that must be addressed before robots can become part of society. People need to understand that robots aren’t a threat and there need to be laws in place to address the use of robots in society. More importantly, we need the wisdom required to use robot technology efficiently and safely.

There is no doubt that robots will continue to become part of society and that they’ll play a greater role performing menial tasks and in helping people become more independent in their later years. The potential for robots to truly help society is great, but there are equally terrifying outcomes if we simply rush the technology to market without proper safeguards. What is your take on robots? Let me know at [email protected].


Caring for the Caregiver

I’ve received a torrent of e-mail about my previous post that offered a tribute to my wife (in fact, one friend wrote about the post in her blog as well). I appreciate all of your kind thoughts. It’s good to know that people do seem to care, especially when we so often seem to read news stories that tell us the world has become an incredibly uncaring place in which to live. I don’t plan to cover every detail about the journey Rebecca and I traveled, but she was sick for a long time-about 5½ years.

Most of that time I cared for her at home because I work from my house. Even so, it would have been impossible for me to care for her at home if a relatively large group of people hadn’t donated their time and resources to help me. Caring for the caregiver is something you seldom hear about, but it’s an essential component of making home care of someone who is quite ill possible. A caregiver who is well supported by others can focus attention on the person in need, rather than constantly fending off requests (and requirements) for other needs. Taking on the role of primary caregiver can be difficult which is why many people instead choose to use a home care agency Lynchburg based or similar to support them.

I’m not going to name all of the people who helped me because I’d invariably leave someone out and hurt feelings that I never intended (nor wanted) to hurt. However, the group is relatively large and is made up of friends, family, people from our church, and hospice volunteers amongst others. In fact, some of these people probably helped without my knowing it and never asked for any thanks in return.

There is at least one incident where I know someone helped me and I don’t know who they are. I was in the hospital, waiting for word about my wife’s status, and fell asleep on an incredibly uncomfortable couch (it most assuredly was stuffed with rocks). I remember waking briefly as someone brought a pillow, helped me lay down, and covered me up. They simply said that I couldn’t help my wife if I made myself sick. If I said anything in response, I don’t remember it. I had been up for three days and was exhausted from the ordeal we had been through. I asked the hospital staff the next day about it and no one knew who might have helped me. If you’re that person and you’re reading this post, please accept my grateful thanks long after the help was offered.

My blog focuses quite a lot on self-sufficiency topics. However, no one is an island. Even the most self-sufficient person in the world is going to need help from someone at some time. Rebecca and I have actually received a lot of help over the years from a lot of different people. When our garden failed to produce something we really needed, we were often able to exchange something we had in excess for the item we needed. The act of interacting with others, helping others, meeting people’s needs in small ways is what makes life worth living. So, the next time you read that truly downer story in the newspaper, remember that this blog post exists. There truly is hope. A lot of people have cared for this caregiver in the past and I plan to help others in the future.