The Empathy WOD

By Deane Barker

I’m sitting the lobby of the Excellence Punta Cana. It’s an all-inclusive resort on the eastern coast of the Dominican Republic. It’s luxurious. The lobby is large enough that you wouldn’t recognize someone on the other side. It’s full of chairs and couches and little nooks and crannies where people can sit and talk.

There’s a woman here – let’s call her Woman A. She was working on her MacBook. She was plugged in, and another woman – let’s call her Woman B – came looking for an outlet in which to plug in her phone. She was frustrated – looking behind columns and planters, when she finally spied the outlet occupied by Woman A’s MacBook.

Woman A noticed Woman B and immediately offered to unplug and give her the outlet. Various pleasantries ensued. They introduced themselves to each other. It was obvious they had never met before.

I sat there, drinking bourbon, and watching them. This exchange happened an hour ago. They’ve been talking non-stop ever since. It’s like they’re old college friends, catching up after 10 years apart. All because one of them needed a power outlet, and the other one offered to give one up.

I find this interesting, because at the same time that I’m watching this, I’m reading “Humans are Underrated: What High Achievers Know that Brilliant Machines Never Will” by Geoff Colvin. It’s a book about how humans are being displaced by machines in all aspects of the professional world, and so what do we have left that machines don’t? What is the core aspect of humanity that flesh-and-blood embodies that computers will never replicate?

Spoiler: it’s empathy. More generally, it’s the desire and ability to connect with a human being. The driving need to connect with someone on an emotional level. Colvin says:

[…] we are hardwired to connect social interaction with survival. No connection can be more powerful. […] Social interaction are what our brains are really for.

That’s putting it in depressingly evolutionary terms. As nomadic wanderers, we apparently banded together for survival. Social bonds and interactions were therefore coded into our brains as a counterpart to safety, thus our need to be with other people. To understand them. To empathize with them.

I guess I prefer to look at it in spiritual terms. We desire to bond with other people on some level other than the day-to-day. We are hardwired to transcend our physical, day-to-day existence and find some larger framework of unity with other people.

The same is true with fitness. I’m not going so far as to say this is the same as “survival,” but for many of us, this is an epic struggle. For those of us prone to gaining weight and without any history of athleticism, the mere act of keeping physically fit is the one of the defining battles of our adult lives. If you were the quarterback of the football team in high school or a natural Size 0, good for you, but most of us can’t relate.

Before I joined CrossFit, I worked out in a standard Globo Gym. I did the bootcamp there regularly. It was a group workout, not unlike CrossFit, taught by an instructor. I worked out with roughly the same group of people three times a week. I never knew any of their names. It was sadly easy to quit.

My first experience at CrossFit was different. People knew each other. They commiserated with each other. And after the workout, they shared the experience. They were tribal. They had clearly bonded together. There was a group mentality that transcended the workout. It was less an individual fight and more of a group struggle. They fought together, and they beat the workout together. There was unity of purpose.

Jeremy Gordon just wrote a great article for The CrossFit Journal about scaling workouts. In it, he warns against one of the challenges in scaling for newcomers:

Besides causing athletes to miss the desired training stimulus, [scaling] can affect class cohesion and an athlete’s sense of belonging

I loved reading that: “…class cohesion and a sense of belonging.” That’s the first official acknowledgment I’ve seen that this stuff even matters.

But it does. It’s even been proven that workout performance is increased by group cohesion and effort. A 2009 study published in the British Journal “Biology Letters” compared rowers working alone and in a group, and found that rowers working together were able to withstand higher amounts of pain:

[…] compared with training alone, group training significantly increases pain threshold, suggesting that synchronized activity somehow heightens opioidergic activity. […] the heightened effect in the group condition appears to have been owing in some way to the effect of working together as a highly coordinated team.

We are programmed to work in groups. You see this during every partner WOD on a Saturday morning – I’d wager that everyone doing that WOD works harder than they would working along during the week. In a partner WOD, you’re working with someone in the same physical distress as you, and you don’t want to let that person down. So you push yourself harder.

Emile Durkhiem noted this over 100 years ago, when he studied the social ramifications of religious life and faith, saying this:

Men look for each other and assemble together more than ever. That general effervescence results which is characteristic of revolutionary or creative epochs. Now this greater activity results in a general stimulation of individual forces.

Grouping together in a highly charged atmosphere results in “a general stimulation of individual forces.”

More recently, an experiment in India took place immediately following a religious festival. At this festival, certain people voluntarily underwent a variety of religious rituals involving various degrees of suffering or self-torture. Afterwards, they were asked to complete a survey, for which they were paid. They were also given the option of donating all or part of their payment to charity. The results were striking:

Those who had participated in the extreme ritual gave twice as much [to charity] as those who had taken part in collective prayer. Strikingly, we found the same high levels of generosity among those who had themselves gone through the painful activities of the kavadi and those who had merely followed the procession without engaging in self-torture. Just as we expected, this painful ritual boosted prosocial behaviour for its participants

Undergoing an extreme experience binds an individual with a group – it “boosts prosocial behavior.” Experiencing a level of intense suffering causes people to look beyond themselves to a larger group for social unity. After going through something even mildly traumatic, we look to some form of group identification for safety.

Sometimes, the battles are short. I remember seeing Fran on the board one morning as an option on make-up Thursday. I still remember the conversation I had with Chelsey about how much we hated Fran, but that we forced ourselves to do it whenever it was an option, and how we’d get through it together. For those six (ahem, eight) or so minutes, it was me and her, against the WOD. She didn’t back down, so I sure as hell wasn’t going to back down either.

Other battles are longer. Many of us have fought long battles against our weight, our lack of motivation, our smoking, our drinking, our whatever. These battles never end, but when we’re in the box together, we’re all fighting together. We connect as a group. We might not know the exact reason that everyone of us is there, but we’re all fighting something.

You can see this on Facebook of all places. A wonderful amount of bitching and complaining about the WOD takes place on Facebook, and this is a good thing. Every conversation about how much of a pain the ass the workout was is one more affirmation that we beat this thing as a group. The coaches, for a short moment in the time, are the bad guys. It’s us against them. We bind together as a group everything we stand around the whiteboard, shaking our heads, and mentally wanting to kill the coach explaining the WOD to us. At these moments, we’re a group preparing to fight back against a common aggressor.

(Once, during one of these bitching sessions, a coach chimed in to defend himself. I told him to save it because we simply needed him to be the bad guy for a moment.)

These moments are constructive, because group cohesion causes us to push each other harder. In an earlier post about why CrossFit works for me, I wrote this:

[…] what we all really want is to be part of the group. More specifically, we want to feel like we’re worthy of the group. Even more specifically, we want to live up to the unspoken standard of effort set by the group. […] If I let myself down, then I let the group down. I know that I’m not part of the group unless I go all the way to edge of my own personal abyss and look over. The tribal sense of community when the workout is over is earned only if you give everything you have while the clock is running.

CrossFit is tribal. We feed off each other. We bond together to get through what is, objectively, a pretty damn unpleasant experience.

Lately, I’ve been running a workout on Sunday afternoons for a handful of people at CrossFit Sioux Falls. Running a workout (I’m leery of the word “coaching”) is a little odd, because you can see people in an acute state of pain, without being there yourself. When you’re doing a workout, everyone is in the same amount of pain, but you’re there with them, so it’s different. When you’re outside the workout, watching it, there’s a different type of connection to it. And when you were the one who put them there, well, that’s even more different. Now you’re the bad guy – you’re the person the group is rebelling against. You’re the person they’re refusing to buckle for. You’re the reason they’re going to go down swinging rather than give in.

This is healthy. This is constructive. This is a group coming together to – at some unconscious level – push the members harder than they would push themselves normally.

Call it evolution. Call it empathy. Call it whatever you want. But the desire to connect with another human being is what drives us. Combine that with an unpleasant experience – be it a single WOD, a long struggle with your weight, or just searching for a damn power outlet in a hotel lobby – and we find a way to come together and celebrate the defining thing that makes us human.