Empathy and Individuality
No two entities originate from an identical universe.
- Alfred North Whitehead
If you are interested in empathy, you might also enjoy:
Kindness: The Beautiful Contagion by Patricia Adams Farmer
Imagining a Department of Empathy: Higher Hopes for Higher Education
Process Theology and Elementary Education
Does Education Kill Creativity?
"Empathy will most likely flower on a collective scale if its seeds are planted in our children. That’s why HEPs support efforts such as Canada’s pioneering Roots of Empathy, the world’s most effective empathy teaching program, which has benefited over half a million school kids. Its unique curriculum centers on an infant, whose development children observe over time in order to learn emotional intelligence—and its results include significant declines in playground bullying and higher levels of academic achievement."
-- Roman Krznaric
* "Empathy" was produced by the Cleveland Clinic, a nonprofit medical center that integrates clinical and hospital care with research and education.
"Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other's eyes for an instant."
-- Henry David Thoreau
The video on the left -- Empathy -- begins with the quotation from Thoreau. Yes, empathy is a great miracle.
There is a quietness to the video which helps us sense the privacy of each person's life. One man has been dreading his appointment and fears he waited too long. Another hopes that his wife's surgery went well and is on his way home. One woman sits quietly, having spent 29 days waiting for a new heart. Another sits in the coffee shop, worried about her 19 year-old son on life support. Each has a world of his or her own,
Whitehead puts it this way: "No two entities originate from an identical universe."
Empathy is more than standing in someone else's shoes and feeling what they feel. It is also honoring the side of a person's life which remains mysterious and private. While it is a miracle to stand in someone's shoes, it also a miracle to remember that the shoes belong to that person, not to you.
Sometimes the extroverts among us forget the second miracle. We forget that sometimes people need to share and sometimes they need not to share. People do not want to be lonely, but sometimes they need to be alone.
I remember hearing a poem once, written by a woman in appreciation of someone with whom she lived for many years. It was a love poem and it said something to the effect: "I have lived with you and slept with you and loved you for so many years and of the many things I love about you, there is one that I cannot easily name. It is that side of you which I can never fully know and do not need to know, that side of you which is private to you and perhaps you do not even know yourself. It is that side of you which is not connected to me. It is your private side. Your celibate core. I love this side of you, too."
Sometimes we need to hug other people, embracing their experiences as best we can; and sometimes we need to bow to them, letting them have their own experiences without pretending they belong to us.
Amid all this it helps to have faith. It helps if we trust in a spirit of goodness at work in the world which can be effective in people's lives even apart from our mediation.
Different people have different names for this spirit. I call it God's Breathing. The breathing is persuasive not coercive, invitational not forceful, gentle not violent. It is at work in the conscious side of a person's life but also in the levels of experience that are deeper than consciousness. It is within a person and between people and in nature, too.
As a woman sits quietly for 29 days, waiting for a new heart, the breathing is in her as a lure to have courage, to keep waiting, to sit with silence, to find a peace within her heart. And it can also take the form of someone who comes up to her, asking her how she is, spending time with her, listening to her, holding her hand. In the very holding of her hand there is a kind of healing. There is also a healing when the person senses that enough has been said, and that it is time to leave her alone.
This Breathing is the spirit behind empathy in both its forms. It is in the holding and the letting go. It is folded within each life and every life. It is the ground of empathy. It is hard to name but easy to touch.