I suppose Easter weekend is as appropriate a moment as any to write about empathy. In the Christian calendar, at least, it represents the high point of suffering; and empathy translates literally from the Greek as ‘suffering in’ (as opposed to sympathy, ‘suffering with’).
But that’s not what has prompted me. The trigger, in fact, is a TED talk I was directed to this week, in which American sociologist Sam Richards illustrates empathy by taking his audience step-by-step through the process of identifying with an Iraqi insurgent. He does it by first unfolding an imaginary scenario in which a hugely powerful China, dependent on American coal, sends an army of occupation into a conflict-ridden United States; then drawing the parallel with the situation in Iraq and inviting the audience to imagine how an ordinary Iraqi might feel about the Americans – which is not, as he crucially points out, the same as agreeing with that person. In a post-9/11 US, it’s a brave but effective way of making his point.
Richards describes sociology as ‘the study of the way humans are shaped by things they can’t see’; and empathy, he tells his students, is everything because to study those invisible forces you must be able to understand other people. The OED defines empathy as ‘the power of projecting one’s personality into, and so fully understanding, the object of contemplation’. The literal meaning of the word ‘understand’ is to ‘stand under’, and at one point in his talk Richards takes a pace to one side, then turns through 180 degrees to face the way he has been facing previously, thus miming the act of stepping into someone else’s shoes, or ‘standing under’ them. I was amused because I make the same movement when talking to people about the importance of empathy in writing. It must be the default gesture for empathy, and I love the implication that we intuitively under-stand that selfsame word’s intrinsic meaning.
Empathy was constantly on my mind when John Simmons and I were writing Room 121, earlier on in the year. Not only is it one of the defining themes of the book, but in the writing John and I were almost daily inviting empathy, one with the other, as we swapped stories. Even so, the impulse to tell an audience what you want to say rather than what they want to hear can be a powerful one. I’ve been caught out in the past when talking to people whose grasp of stories and language has been more literal than I had appreciated, and seen the blank looks resulting from my assumption that they will ‘get’ the emotional torque of a phrase or story without my having to explain it.
Empathy, it seems to me, is the principal means of bridging the gap between our human differences. It’s not possible without the capacity to imagine. But it also requires an effort of will, a wish to connect, even if not necessarily to concur – and when that is absent, all manner of troubles ensue. Imagine what might have happened had Sam Richards given his talk to an audience of Romans, inviting them to empathise with a rabble-rousing Judaean mystic.
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