‘Empathy is like a universal solvent. Any problem immersed in it becomes soluble. Unlike the arms industry that costs trillions of dollars to maintain or the prison service and legal system that cost millions…to keep oiled, empathy is free. And unlike religion, empathy cannot by definition, oppress anyone.’ Writes Professor Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University, in ‘The Guardian Weekly’ 8th April 2011. Few newspaper articles captivate me in the way that this one did, and it has been working in the back of my mind ever since I read it.
Last week I had a long over due conversation with a friend who I used to work with. It would be true to say that things have happened over the last 18 months that have caused a fair bit of hurt and frustration in our relationship and also some anger. Yesterday I went to pick up the team from Kids Club and noticed that things weren’t right, it soon became clear that things hadn’t gone so well at Kids Club and they had all reacted in different ways to the stress of the moment; the result was a fair bit of anger, frustration and blame directed at each other. Recently I received an email from a colleague that hooked me, there was nothing wrong with the email itself, the process just hooked me and I responded quickly and sharply causing bewilderment for my colleague and stalling the process that we were engaged in. In yet another context I recently received some communication from someone which is causing me to ponder what I can do to assist that person in seeing the world from a range of other perspectives and not just from their own.
It is interesting to reflect on these relationships in light of Professor Baron-Cohen’s article. He suggests that empathy is one of humankind’s strongest emotions and that its absence lies at the root of human cruelty and helps us to understand how we can treat others as if they were mere objects. He suggests that we all exist somewhere on a bell curve with regards to empathy, but also that we can move along the curve. Things like alcohol, fatigue and depression can temporarily reduce our empathy. Similarly, some medical conditions like schizophrenia or personality disorders such as boarderline and antisocial personality disorders can cause markedly reduced – zero or negative zero degrees of empathy.
Empathy is our ability to know what life is like for another person – to really understand, almost as if you were experiencing it yourself. Professor Baron-Cohen describes low empathy in terms of reduced ‘awareness of how you come across to others, how to interact with other or how to anticipate their feelings or reactions. It leaves you feeling mystified by why relationships don’t work out and it creates a deep seated self centeredness.’ I have to say that there are moments when I can identify with this description! But what struck me as I reflected on how I sometimes conduct myself and also how others have related to me was what he said next: ‘the consequence is that you believe… in the rightness of your own ideas and beliefs, and judge anyone who does not hold your beliefs as wrong or stupid.’
As I reflect on things that have come up over the last 10 days as I have gone about my work, I realize that without empathy we remain hostile and fearful rather than hospitable, there is no hope of reconciliation or anything that requires authentic community, corporation or synergy. I realize too that God himself has provided the most confronting example of empathy by taking human form and living amongst us for 33 years, which in itself reminds me that without empathy we remain far from God’s Kingdom on earth.
Over the next couple of weeks I want to share some of my journey reflecting on empathy.