670th Week: Generating Empathy
One of the things that has been very much on my mind these days is an awareness of the stunning lack of empathy expressed by public figures, particularly in the political realm. What feels so impacting is that this apparent lack of empathy resonates with so many people around the world, as reflected in news reports about the many ways in which we harm one another.
For me, empathy has to do with being able to have a sense of what someone else experiences and then to feel both compassion and a sense of care for the well-being of others. The African word “ubuntu” encompasses this sense, where it says “I am who I am because you are.” I recall reading about this principle in an article written by a Westerner who went to Africa and witnessed a group of children playing together. Someone, it may have been a researcher, wanted the children to run a race to see who would win. What emerged was counter to our Western cultural value of competition. The children would run, then stop and look back, and then go back and run with those who were slower. When asked why they did this, why they didn’t keep running and win the race, the response was something along the lines of, “What fun would it be to leave anyone behind?”
This fundamental idea embodied in “ubuntu” for me encompasses what we need to awaken in all of us. How can we be satisfied with abundance, enough food, comfort, freedom to be who we naturally are, or ease if these qualities aren’t available to all of us? I remember reading William Ryan’s book, “Blaming the Victim” many years ago and the theme of that book has stayed with me throughout my adult life. It speaks to the tendency we have to blame people who are poor or otherwise have difficulties rather than to look at the larger societal and power dynamics that play a pivotal role in why it is considered acceptable that some people have a great deal and others suffer. Also, there are the ways in which we don’t want to imagine that we could also be in that situation if our circumstances were to change.
For this week’s experiment, I invite you to track even more closely your relationship with, and expression of, empathy – “Ubuntu” – in your everyday life. When you notice that someone is being oppressed, or doesn’t have access to a job, or in some other way suffers from a circumstance that doesn’t touch your present experience, what happens inside you? How does your heart respond? What thoughts come? Notice if there’s a part of you that blames people who suffer. It’s a response that has been conditioned in many of us and tracking these thoughts offers an ongoing opportunity to stop them and shift to a more empathic, and reality-based, perspective.
Remember that it’s helpful to bring along curiosity as your constant companion, and this is especially useful when tracking the kind of social conditioning often inherent in how we view the suffering of others. And, also please remember to pat any judgements on the head as they inevitably arise, move through, and move on. As I’ve said before, we can recognize that judgments are inevitable but our relationship to them can change.