Empathizing vs. Systemizing – A Book Review of Tattoos On The Heart

I recently read this article from Fast Company about Father Greg Boyle’s work at Homeboy Industries, and just like every other time I’ve encountered stories of this work, it ended with me in tears.  It reminded me that I’ve been meaning to write about Tattoos On The Heart, which just might be my favorite book ever.  It certainly is the most moving book I’ve ever read.

Since this is a blog that is largely about psychology, I’d like to frame my discussion of the book in terms of one of my favorite psychological theories of personality, Simon Baron-Cohen’s Empathizing-Systemizing distinction.  Father Boyle is a great empathizer, who seems to “enjoy caring for other people”, is able to “predict how someone will feel”, and knows “what to do in a social situation” (quotes are from Baron-Cohen’s scale).  In contrast, he is a fairly mediocre systemizer (e.g. reading “legal documents very carefully”), if we are to infer that trait from the finance side of Homeboy Industries depicted in Fast Company.  Luckily, he now has help.  This empathizing dimension relates to the two things that I feel are most powerful about Father Boyle.  His ability to forgive and his ability to tell stories.  From the book:

We had lots of enemies in those early days, folks who felt that assisting gang members somehow cosigned on their bad behavior.  Hate mail, death threats, and bomb threats were common…From my office once, I heard a homegirl answer the phone, and say to the caller, “Go ahead and bring that bomb, mutha fucka.  We’re ready for your ass.”…”Uh, Kiddo, um,” I tell her, “Maybe we should just say ‘Have a nice day and God bless you.’”

Some of the gang members have done terrible things, but one of his favorite things to say to those whom most of society would rather ignore is that “you are so much more than the worst thing that you have done.”  In the Fast Company article, they give money to a woman who punched their receptionist in the face.  Sometimes the generosity seems so without limits as to be insane, yet for these youth who have no fear of prison or death, it seems hard to imagine anything but unconditional love being their salvation.  In some ways, Father Greg is giving these youth the unconditional love that many of us take for granted from our parents.

Our YourMorals.org data tells a similar story about the characteristics of empathizers.  Empathizers (the blue line) in our dataset, tend to forgive others (as measured by questions like being “understanding of others for the mistakes they’ve made”).

As well, empathizers, in our dataset, also tend to enjoy stories (r=.17, p<.001, N=495), and the second trait that makes Father Boyle unique is his ability to tell stories.  Stories are a way for human beings to communicate not just information, but the feelings that go along with that information.  Indeed, the most common measure of empathy used in psychology, the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, uses items like “I really get involved with the feelings of the characters in a novel” and “Becoming extremely involved in a good book or movie is somewhat rare for me” (reverse scored) to measure empathy.  Stories are powerful things.  From the introduction of the book:

I have all these stories and parables locked away in the “Public Storage” of my brain, and I have long wanted to find a permanent home for them.  The usual “containers” for these stories are my homilies at Mass in the twenty-five detention centers where I celebrate the Eucharist…After Mass once, at one of these probation camps, a homie grabbed both my hands and looked me in the eye.  ”This is my last Mass at camp.  I go home on Monday.  I’m gonna miss your stories.  You tell good stories.  And I hope….I never have to hear your stories again.”

Father Boyle’s stories really are good and show the polish of years of curation.  They transform me every time I read them, reminding me that while justice may feel good, kindness is far more powerful.

If there is a fundamental challenge within these stories, it is simply to change our lurking suspicion that some lives matter less than other lives.

Food for thought.  Please do read the book and I’ll be quite shocked if you can read the stories in the book without being similarly moved.  I can’t recommend it enough.

- Ravi Iyer

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