What the world needs now … is empathy

Empathy symbol
Here’s what they have to say over at http://www.empathysymbol.com:

“Heinz Kohut defined empathy as “the capacity to think and feel oneself into the inner life of another person.” We think that’s what the world needs today. As the cultural wars rage — Judeo/Christians vs. Muslims, immigrants vs. native-borns, Red States vs. Blue States — what we all need is to walk in each others’ shoes, to empathize with the other’s position, situation, upbringing, life experiences and feelings. Empathy leads to respect and caring for each other, and that is the sure path to peace.”

Reading that paragraph again, my brain catches on to the words “we think that’s what the world needs today”. Does anyone feel a song coming on? As in Burt Bacharach and the Posies? Check out Jackie Deshannon singing the Bach’s cheesy song (with really schmaltzy visuals) on You Tube.

And while you’re smiling, you may as well have a look at some of the Smiles over at the Smile group at Flickr:

I also really liked the connection that Marshall Rosenberg (of Non-violent communication fame) makes between empathy and surfing:

Question: “What is the Definition for Empathy?”
Rosenberg: “Empathy, I would say is presence. Pure presence to what is alive in a person at this moment, bringing nothing in from the past. The more you know a person, the harder empathy is. The more you have studied psychology, the harder empathy really is. Because you can bring no thinking in from the past. If you surf, you’d be better at empathy because you will have built into your body what it is about. Being present and getting in with the energy that is coming through you in the present. It is not a mental understanding.”

Question: “Is it speaking from the heart?”
Rosenberg: “What? Empathy? In empathy, you don’t speak at all. You speak with the eyes. You speak with the body. If you say any words at all, it’s because you are not sure you are with the person. So you may say some words. But the words are not empathy. Empathy is when the other person feels the connection to with what’s alive in you.”

Isn’t that great? Thanks to Duen Hsi Yen for that transcription. Check out his surfing links here.

On a slightly more thinking level, I also liked this:

Empathy is the ability to understand the situation of others and imagine how they feel. It’s at the heart of our closest personal ties and a key element in the relationship between clinicians and patients, especially in psychotherapy. […] researchers at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston are monitoring physiological responses and emotional interactions during psychotherapy sessions. Results … show that when positive emotions are running high, patients and therapists are in sync physiologically, and the more in sync they are, the higher the level of empathy. (Harvard Women’s Health Watch, July 2007)


7 Responses to What the world needs now … is empathy

  1. verbivore says:

    Have been enjoying your focus on empathy. I think allowing yourself to feel real empathy takes a lot of courage. It’s frightening to see life through someone else’s experience, makes our boundaries and “truths” fuzzy instead of solid. I’ve been trying to think of books, fiction specifically, which deal with concepts of empathy … Philippe Claudel’s La Petite Fille de Monsieur Linh is one, two men who come to friendship without a shared language to ease the transition, a beautiful story. Or, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers – I think you could look at that story with empathy in mind. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye maybe too…

  2. Litlove says:

    I like what verbivore has to say – hadn’t thought of it that way. I was going to suggest that empathy is the goal of both ethics and intersubjectivity. We have to see the other person as a full subject in their own right, not just an object in our field of vision.

  3. Pete says:

    Verbivore – thanks for those great suggestions. Will add Claudel and Powers and Morrison to my list. And it IS frightening as you say. I liked the part about fuzzy truths. Makes me think of how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us. The truth is often in the middle.

    Litlove – Thanks for those valuable points. I hadn’t thought about empathy as the goal of ethics before. And very well put about seeing the other person as a full subject not just an object. I was remembering a failed crush of a few years ago. I was hopelessly in love with an ex-girlfriend who had now moved on to another. I couldn’t understand why my loving her wasn’t enough. “But I love you,” I probably said. Her indifference only seemed to fuel the crush. I think what helped me get over it was trying to understand things from both of our perspectives. Being empathic towards her and towards the part of me that was desperately seeking affection in the face of rejection.

  4. doctordi says:

    Hi Pete. Your piece on empathy brought to mind one of my all-time favourite quotes, from the late former Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson. It’s interesting how interchangeable the notions of ‘education’ and ’empathy’ become when viewed in these terms:

    Education is, above all, and ever has been, the process of learning how to think honestly and straight; to distinguish between the true and the false; to appreciate quality and beauty wherever it may be found; and to be able to participate and to desire to participate with intelligence and tolerance in that most important of all forms of free enterprise: the exchange of ideas on every subject under the sun with a minimum of restriction, personal, social, and political.

    In a word, education means – and I think this is the best definition of it that I have ever discovered – the “creation of finer human hungers.”

  5. Dick says:

    And literature has its part in creating the disposition. This from C.S. Lewis:

    ‘It’s no use telling us that something was ‘mysterious’ or ‘loathsome’ or ‘awe-inspiring’ or ‘voluptuous.’ By direct description, by metaphor and simile, by secretly evoking powerful associations, by offering the right stimuli to our nerves (in the right degree and the right order), and by the very beat and vowel-melody and length and brevity of your sentences, you must bring it about that we, we readers, not you, exclaim, ‘how mysterious!’ or ‘loathsome’ or whatever it is. Let me taste for myself, and you’ll have no need to tell me how I should react.’

  6. Pete says:

    DoctorDi – that’s a wonderful quote. I like the way it links empathy, desire and education. Thanks.

    Dick – Yes, my next post on empathy has to be one on literature. Thanks for that great CS Lewis quote.

  7. doctordi says:

    I’m going to take that CS Lewis quote and tape it to my computer.

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