An Empathy Toward Things // Melancholy in Complex Systems

Posted by on Oct 3, 2016 in Ethno Thinks | No Comments

// An Empathy Toward Things

Recently, I’ve become hyper-aware and sensitive to what I call the “melancholy awareness of fleeting beauty.” I wonder if it might be the combination of becoming a mother and working in consulting, although my husband and I have talked about this concept for many years. The Japanese phrase mono no aware points to this gentle sadness as part of our awareness of impermanence…the term is often translated as “the pathos of things” or “an empathy toward things” (which I think is beautiful). It references the temporal nature of things; both a transient subtle sadness (or wistfulness) at their passing, and a longer, deeper sadness about this state being the reality of life.

This melancholy awareness to the heaviness and complexities of human life has always been present in my life. My husband often calls me a pessimist, but I would say I’m more of a pessimistic realist. I’m a firm believer of the co-existence of darkness and hope.


// The Co-Existence of Darkness and Hope

I heard an interview with Alain De Botton on This American Life a couple months ago. At one point, Alain De Botton is asked about his marriage and his attitude toward melancholy in relationships. My husband, sitting next to me, chuckled and gave me “that” look (you know, that sideways look you get from someone close to you, hinting that this is “so you”…)

Alain De Botton: “I’m married.”
Ira Glass: “What’s your wife say about all this?”
Alain De Botton: “Look, she’s very funny. She’s a pessimistic realist. On our 10th wedding anniversary, she dressed in black. And she said, it was a funeral for many of her hopes. So she’s quite dark too. But we’re actually very hopeful about the course of love.”

I like that he alludes the co-existence of darkness and hope…the presence of melancholy in love, or any relationship for that matter. Later in the interview, De Botton talks about the inevitable misunderstandings and failures in relationships, and the value of using self-awareness and sober melancholy to address them.

Alain De Botton: “I think that there are aspects of a good marriage that should encompass a kind of melancholy, as we realize that we’re trying to do such a complex thing with someone. We are trying to find our best friend, our ideal sexual partner, our co-household manager, perhaps our co-parent. And we’re expecting that all this will miraculously go well together. Of course it can. We’re not going to be able to get it all right. There will be many areas of misunderstanding and failure. And a certain amount of sober melancholy is a real asset when heading forth into the land of love.”

// Self-Awareness and Sober Melancholy Within Ourselves

As a society, I think we embrace this concept in relation to our inner-selves, and maybe our personal one-on-one relationships. However, we don’t quite recognize that same self-awareness as part of groups, communities, and larger complex systems. Shouldn’t a certain amount of sober melancholy also exist when we interact in larger groups (especially at work and within our communities)? Shouldn’t our understanding be that maybe things won’t “miraculously go well together”? Isn’t having awareness and empathy for each other and the complexities in which we function, the very basis for creating solutions and approaches to navigating said complexities?

In the last couple of years I feel this sober melancholy becoming more present, more nagging…very present in my day-to-day life… I think becoming a parent just tears your heart so far open (in the best,”mono no aware-kind of way”) that I want to jump up and fix any situation when individuals (especially children) are suffering…It somehow has made me extra sensitive to these individual struggles I see…but then working in consulting and specifically in ethnographic research, connects me to the larger, systematic complexities. Working in consulting environments exposes you to so many hugely complex struggles, to the wicked problems, on a daily basis…including the challenges large enterprises face as a business, the struggles the employees face as part of their world of work, the issues of connecting our ever-growing networks and systems…all the complexities of being an individual human as part of societies, cultures, networks…

It’s easier to empathize with the individuals close to us, even if our relationships are tough, complicated, and accompanied by melancholy. Yet it’s much harder to empathize with entire groups of people, large organizations, and complex systems. Finding peace with the concept of impermanence and gentle (yet somehow beautiful) sadness, is extremely difficult when it stretches beyond the individual.

// Self-Awareness and Sober Melancholy Within Systems

If parenting bring us closer to the joy and struggle of our individual mundane moments, does being in the world of corporate anthropology do the opposite? Does it magnify the challenges of our human flaws in the face of human complexity…and our possibly unrealistic expectations of the humans in it? How could a sober melancholy help us set more realistic starting points as we navigate the complex world? How do we affect change in this web of constantly moving, inter-connected, and dependent parts? How do we feel purposeful with this melancholy awareness about all of these moving parts, and just as importantly, how do we see actual impact from our actions and involvement, knowing that everything is in a constant state of change and transience? How can we move from an empathy toward individual people and things to an empathy toward complex systems?

// An Empathy Toward Systems

Alain De Botton interestingly saw melancholy awareness as an important part of being in a relationship, as part of doing something complex together…so maybe it can also work with the complexity of communities and systems of people. If we can talk about the power of self-awareness and sober melancholy to address failures in relationships, why is it so hard to extend this beyond individuals or couples? Can we truly have empathy for systems until we accept the premise that wistfulness and melancholy are not only an integral part of our human experiences but also of the systems in which they are comprised?



Because the end of a journey often revisits the beginning, I will end with a happy coincidence, reminding me that complexity also means everything connects at some point…in a subtle, beautiful way. Last week, I saved this picture from a tour of architect Simon Astridge’s home. This simple circle in the bedroom stood out to me – it was handmade of local clay arakabe (which means, literally, clay plaster) and has been one of the essential building materials in Japan since the 17th century.

This week, while researching Japanese concepts such as wabi sabi, I found this picture, reminiscent of the beauty in  complexity when looking outward and beyond our individual selves.

wabi-sabi-room_Source Yasunari Nakamura

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