Sunday, June 07, 2009


Roman Krzanir from TheSchoolofLife talks about Empathy


‘We seem to be suffering from an empathy deficit – our ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, to see the world through those who are different from us – the child who's hungry, the laid-off steel worker, the immigrant woman cleaning your dorm room.’ – Barack Obama

I believe that empathy - the imaginative act of stepping into another person's shoes and viewing the world from their perspective - is a radical tool for social change and should be the guiding light for how we lead our lives.Empathy is different from pity, sympathy, compassion or everyday kindness. If you see a homeless beggar under a bridge you may feel sorry for him and give him some money as you pass by. That is pity, not empathy. If, on the other hand, you make an effort to step into his shoes, to consider what life is really like for him, and perhaps have a conversation that transforms him in your eyes from a faceless stranger into a unique individual, then you are empathising. We are often advised to follow the so-called Golden Rule, 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you'. But that also is not empathy, for it
involves considering how you - with your own views - would wish to be treated. Empathy requires more: imagining their views rather than your own, and acting accordingly. George Bernard Shaw understood the difference when he quipped, 'Do
not do unto others as you would have them do unto you - they may have different

But why focus on empathy? What does it offer that other values, ideals or morals do not? Understanding other people's worldviews - their beliefs, emotions, experiences and ways of looking at life - is an essential means of escaping the narrow confines of our own egos and preoccupations, in three different ways. First, empathising both with people we know and with distant strangers can help to expand our moral universes, so that we consider the plight of those who we might otherwise ignore or whose difficulties we might overlook, such as the laid-off steel worker mentioned by Barack Obama. But empathy can do more than this. It can also provide unexpected insights and inspiration for our own lives, offering the basis for a philosophy of living.
During the past four decades the self-help genre has unashamedly emphasised what
can be done to help me and my own life. But the introspection and excessive individualism associated with self-help and twentieth-century psychoanalysis have failed to bring personal joy and fulfilment. Our pursuit of the art of living needs to be more outrospective: that is, we should discover and fulfil ourselves through caring about other people, and that means understanding how they live, think and look at the world. Empathy is the ultimate art form for the age of outrospection.

Third, psychologists tend to view empathy as an individual experience, but history shows that empathy is also a collective phenomenon. Empathy has the potential to be a powerful means for changing the society we live in, helping to confront acute problems such as wealth inequality, climate change and intercultural conflict. We must aspire to creating empathetic mass movements, just as those who struggled against slavery in Britain in the late eighteenth century managed to do. To cultivate collective empathy is to take part in the revolution in human relationships that the
twenty-first century so desperately requires. That's why many social reformers,
from St Francis of Assisi and Mahatma Gandhi, to Desmond Tutu and Barack Obama, have put empathy at the centre of their personal and political visions. Empathy is no soft concept - it is a tool of radicals.

via Roman Krazanric

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