I’ve decided to make September empathy month here at the Couch Trip. We’ll see how far I get with that but I’ve definitely got a few posts on this topic. For starters I was wondering whether the words “fun” and “empathy” can exist in the same sentence. Is empathy just serious or can it be sexy?
I was thinking yesterday about a case from last year. A young girl (in her teens) was referred to me for a cognitive assessment to help with school placement. On the intelligence test she scored in the “Cognitively Handicapped” range but there was a very big discrepancy between her Verbal and Performance IQs. Her Verbal IQ was basically terrible while her performance in the non-verbal tests was significiantly better. She was very anxious and she was, to use the language of Klein or Winnicott, very caught up in her internal world. My heart went out to her and I really wanted to help if I could but there wasn’t much that I could do. We did the assessment and I wrote up my report (recommending she be transferred to a more technical school, but also that she receive therapy and that her mother attend parental guidance classes and also therapy of her own). Remembering the case, I feel a bit sad. Perhaps I identify with the teenager caught up in their internal world and needing a helping hand to build more meaningful relationships.
There are many aspects of empathy that I’d like to mention. I initially got on to the topic by looking at violence. In August I opened a file on my computer called ‘Violence Research’ and started filling it with articles on “Freud and Violence” and so on. But after about two weeks of this, I realised that I was very possibly missing the point. Violence (like evil) flourishes in the absence of empathy. Shouldn’t we rather focus on the empathy (and the lack thereof) rather than on the violence? I liked what Barack Obama said about the “empathy deficit” being a problem that should receive as much attention as the budget deficit. (What a pity if the polls are right and the Republicans win once again.)
And, following Arthur Saltzman, I would love to make this topic dance, to come alive. But as with the issue of sanity (which Adam Phillips made so interesting in Going Sane), I think the issue of empathy could do with a makeover. So where to begin?
Yesterday my group had a really good discussion about empathy and our poet-priest reminded us of Agape (unconditional love) as well as introducing us to a Tonglan meditation, which effectively asked us to “breathe in the pain” and “open your heart-mind”.
I like this poem by the Canadian poet Carmine Starnino called ‘The Last Days’ (posted by Alex Boyd at The Danforth Review) :
When the nurse let go, my aunt
stood there, disoriented, swaying a little
from side to side, and we understood
that for one more day she had been
returned to us, her body given back
to the world. My uncle, waiting behind her,
smiled with the excitement of a father
watching his daughter’s first steps
as my aunt tottered toward the vase
of flowers by the window, taking one step
then another, squinting into the sunlight
that warmed the hospital room, filling it
with the rich fragrance of lilac.
Carl Rogers talks about empathy as a “way of being” rather than doing. And then I’m reading about Winnicott (Adam P again). Here’s Winnicott on imagination: “A sign of health in the mind is the ability of one individual to enter imaginatively and accurately into the thoughts and feelings and hopes and fears of another person; also to allow the other person to do the same to us … ” Doesn’t that sound a bit like blogging? Perhaps blogging could be promoted as a way to cultivate inter-subjective empathy?
By the way the picture at the top refers to walking around in someone else’s shoes (photo by PataGata at Flickr). Another image that I think would work is a Mark Rothko print. Very New York psychotherapist’s office.
Lastly, another quote from Alex Boyd’s excellent article in TDR. Here he quotes Alden Nowland’s “Johnnie’s Poem”
Look! I’ve written a poem!
and hands it to me
and it’s about
his grandfather dying
last summer, and me
in the hospital
and I want to cry,
don’t you see, because it doesn’t matter
if it’s not very good:
what matters is he knows
and it was me, his father, who told him
you write poems about what
you feel deepest and hardest.