Saturday, February 27, 2010

What do you see?

When I was 10 years old, I was sitting beside an elderly friend of the family in a country church service. She looked toward the front of the church where a wooden sign displayed information about the morning’s attendance and offering amounts and then commented on what she saw there. I remember turning to her in amazement. “You can read that from here?”, I asked. She looked at me with concern. “ You mean you can’t?” “I can’t even tell there are numbers on that board”, I answered. Needless to say, I was in the optometrists chair within the next few days where it was found that my eye sight was very bad indeed. I marveled then and alsotoday about the fact that I had no idea that my vision was decreasing AND that every day I was seeing the world totally differently from all of the people around me. I assumed that everyone else saw exactly like me.

A few days ago I was listening to a political commentator speak about the huge importance of empathy and how it was invaluable for individuals, corporations and governments. She was proposing that our lack of empathy was so problematic that we needed to teach it in our schools. My jaw dropped, I hit the “pause” button on the Ipod and turned to my husband and kids who were riding in the car with me. “What!? Why in the world would we have to teach this in school? Don’t we all already know how to feel empathy? Isn’t it part of what it means to be human? Isn’t it hardwired into our make up?” Empathy has always been something that just moves inside of me and so I just thought that it came equally naturally to everyone else.

For me empathy means the ability to imagine the feelings and experiences of another. (And when I use the term imagine here I am referring to an emotional imagination, not just a vision in my head.) The dictionary on my computer actually says the ability to share or understand, but in my experience unless I have actually experienced the same situation, I can’t really share or understand their feelings. (Perhaps it’s just semantics.) Empathy means that I can look at a person or situation that is different socially, culturally, religiously, etc. etc. and still say, “Here is a person that is in some fundamental way very much like me. We are not so different.” I am identifying with their humanity.

So, help me see with different eyes. I know what I hope to be true and what I want to believe, but I would like to hear about what you all think the reality is of our relationship to empathy.


Dan Gurney said...

in my view, and in my heart I believe that American culture is highly empathy-deficient.

We have many, many tools to dull, blur, and diminish empathy: think of any combat-simulation video game.

Do we need to teach empathy? Yes. I cannot think of anything we need more urgently.

Well, maybe oxygen, water, food.

There's a bit of synchronicity between your post today and my post yesterday which raises a question about empathy.

Anonymous said...

i think its all about intention, whether we really want to drop our own preconceptions enough to enter into seeing someone else and their situation openly and clearly. and it's all about love, to extend ourselves beyond our comfort zone, to open ourselves to the pain that we might experience, and to do it anyway. to feel the reality that we are all connected. thankyou again rebecca for your lovely words. x

The Pollinatrix said...

I like the analogy you make here with physical vision and empathetic vision. I also like Dan's comment, although I would go so far to say that we need empathy MORE than we need oxygen, food, or water.

I was surprised at your reaction to the woman saying we need to teach empathy. My reaction would have been, "It's about friggin' time!" Then when I read further, I was touched by the purity I see in you, the innocence.

I'm actually like you in the sense that empathy generally comes easy for me. But I'm very aware of how empathy-deficient (to use Dan's term) many in our culture are. It's astounding.

Rebecca Johnson said...

Dan, I'm wondering though, can we be empathetic and still not act? Is there something else in us that moves us to actually take a step? The kindness you (and the Dalai Lama) often speak of? Compassion? I had an experience today in which I felt such empathy with a person and though it would have been difficult and pretty messy, I could have done something. But I didn't. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Rebecca Johnson said...

Anon, Please see my comment to Dan. I would love to hear your opinion as well.


Rebecca Johnson said...


As I pondered this whole experience and then started writing about it I felt naive, for sure, but also downright stupid and blind. Of course I knew that we don't think of others in the way that we should. Look at all the atrocities that we have managed to pull off in the last couple of thousand years, and yet, I still thought that everyone must know how to empathize. I wonder how it might change the way I move in the world?

By the way, many, many belated happy birthday wishes!


Barbara said...

One of my former colleagues was trying to explain to her college-age students about her husband's sudden death and the impact that would have on her teaching and she noted how rudely distracted and even silly some were behaving. Years ago, I had to announce to my class that a colleague had died, a man who had an alcohol problem that he, with brave struggle and treatment, had managed to face down. Some smart aleck made a disparaging comment about him. It hurt because he was my friend. I scolded that student for his lack of compassion.

I believe mass communications has a role to play in deadening our sense of empathy. We are confronted to saturation with all the disasters of the world on our televisions. The computer age has brought with it a curious anonymity wherein people no longer have to be face-to-face to communicate. We lose the skill of reading one another's faces.

Schools can do something to remedy this, I assume, but parents, churches, community organizations all have a role to play.

Thank you for your thoughtful post on compassion, empathy. I prefer the word compassion, to suffer with someone, to empathy, which sounds so like a halfway measure to me.



Your opening about seeing and not seeing is such an excellent lead in to your post.

I often see situations (probably on the news channels) that I can view and "feel" the pain. My life is not the life of those I see but my heart understands their pain - sometimes I am able to act on their behalf, sometimes not but it doesn't stop me from thinking of them, remembering them, praying for them.....and feeling their pain.

And yes, when I find persons who have no clue of the pain that I witness, I think they must be blind or worse, just mean-spirited or cruel. That's heavy duty judgment that shouldn't come up in the same discourse as empathy, I suspect!