On Empathy


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!
Johnnie says
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.

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10 Responses to On Empathy

  1. couchtrip says:

    One more thing (since it’s easier to comment than to re-post this), for a cute 1-minute movie on the subject of empathy check out http://disembedded.wordpress.com/2008/09/07/empathy-a-foundation-for-the-complexities-of-love/

  2. sadie says:

    I loved this post, Pete. And thanks for the added clip. I wonder when it is we lose that seemingly automatic empathetic response of the child? I also appreciated your connection to Obama. I am so tired how hardened hearts seem to be…how deficient we are in empathy. I think its tied in many ways to the un-civilness of our public (and not only political) discourse. I wonder what would happen if we all devoted a month to empathy!? Thanks, Pete. ~sadie

  3. Dick says:

    Very interesting reflections, Pete. Being a Brit, I can’t comment on the situation in the States, but a major inhibiting factor in the way of the enhancement of empathy in the developing child is the education system. Empathy is, indeed, a way of being, as Carl Rogers declares, and the ongoing and intensifying emphasis on quantitative assessment, on the acquisition of knowledge over the getting of wisdom – in short, on schooling over education – has all but stifled the affective within the educational process. The student has become the object of the exercise rather than the subject. Harassed teachers faced with overwhelming testing, marking and grading schedules have little time for any perception of their charges as individuals dealing with personal issues as they try to get to grips with an increasingly complex and ambiguous world. Resentful students have little time for any understanding of their teachers as individuals with personal issues etc. Little wonder that the visual and performing arts have not only held their ground in the face of these appalling pressures but have increased their constituency.

    Too long a rant! I’d add only that my own education was, in the main, happy and fulfilling because of the emphasis placed in my schools on the empathy principle as a staple of educational process. This is a comment, not a post, so… http://patteran.typepad.com/patteran_pages/2008/03/index.html + http://www.pettrust.org.uk/index.php/New_Sherwood_School

  4. Litlove says:

    Empathy must surely clash with the selfish consumer ideology that is predominant in the Western (and English-speaking) world. We’ve been in the cult of the individual for more many decades now, and that’s not about feeling other people’s happiness or pain. But I do think that we are naturally empathetic and it’s something we learn to lose. Funnily enough, and at the other end of the scale, I think intensive mothering doesn’t always help here, for if the mother never shows herself to the child as tired, bored, irritated, and so on, the child never understands its impact on others. It’s a fine line, but it’s perfectly possible for mothers to show these negative feelings without aggression or blame.

    Great post, Pete! I can see you have masses to say on this topic – and it needs to be said.

  5. Pete says:

    Sadie – thanks very much for the visit. I am really enjoying reading your blog. A calming influence (amidst all the fruitful busyness which you also describe). And I’m a bit daunted by empathy month but I’m also quite pleased with the idea. IT’s such an obvious idea when you think about it, but it almost requires a paradigm shift to get there.

    Dick – another example of the joys of the blogosphere. I really enjoyed reading your tribute to New Sherwood School and it reminds me a lot of a previous headmaster of mine when I taught at St Mark’s School in Lebowa. The learning involved in those meetings for example – the process being as important as the outcome. And your quote at the end about “don’t mourn – organise” makes me think of muscular empathy. I totally agree with your comments on education.

    Litlove – I’m very interested to see your link to mothering here, and of course I agree. As you say, the trick is to show those negative feelings without aggression and blame. It’s interesting that “empathic failure” (non-traumatic) is essential in Kohut’s theory of the development of a healthy self-concept. Thanks for reminding me of that.

  6. […] at Couchtrip, Pete has declared September Empathy Month.  And I’ve decided to following suit. (By the […]

  7. seachanges says:

    I really like this article and I felt this recognition of how children empathise naturally, given the space and the opportunity. I particularly liked the shoes: walking around in someone else’s shoes – it’s something my granddaughter (a three year old) does naturally, picking up my shoes and walking around in them when she comes and visits. But she also accepts (and empathises!) that one or two pairs are out of bounds for walking around in in the mud! It’s a pity how we often lose that natural ability to empathise. Perhaps we lose it because we are not given the opportunity so that it becomes dulled and is taken over by other character traits, less nice ones….

  8. openpalm says:

    thanks so much for the idea of empathy month! i’ve gone on a bit at openpalm…
    so as not to take up your space. come visit…

  9. Jarrett says:

    Great post. I would love to read more from you on how Winnicott’s description of empathy as a sign of mental health aligns with what fiction writers do.

  10. Pete says:

    Seachanges – I love that image of your granddaughter walking around in your shoes (although I can see why you’d draw the line at mud for the good ones). I’m also not sure why it is that we lose that natural empathy. I think it’s because other things are seen as more important – reading, writing and arithmetic for a start, and then doing better than others at sport or whatever. Dick was saying that empathy is not seen as a goal of education.

    Openpalm – welcome and thanks for the visit. I will be interested to see the dialogue that develops on this theme (nice site by the way).

    Jarret – Thanks for the challenge. I’m also interested to see how Winnicott’s ideas link up here.

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