a universal solvent

‘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.

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Freedom Fighter

Last week I went on a 4 day trip with a colleague of mine to Durban and Johannesburg. During trip we met up with some very special people. Stella was one of these. Stella lives in Alexandra township in Johannesburg, Alex is the oldest township in the country and will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year, but more of that in another entry.

We had hoped that Stella would be able to join us in Cape Town last month for the specialized training that I have been involved in delivering for Fusion’s Front Line teams in the country. Sadly as the time drew near Stella’s health sent out alarm bells, she was booked for a CTScan and within a week had to adjust to the news that she had stage two cervical cancer. Stella was recently diagnosed with Insulin dependant diabetes and lives with a range of other health difficulties.

Stella connected in with Fusion in 2009 and ever since has been running kids clubs  in the drive way of her little home, for the kids in her street. She has several children of her own and has ‘adopted’ many others over the years. If you spend any time with her she will soon start sharing about ‘her children’ and the concerns she has for various ones. Her eyes light up when she shares about the kids that come to her kids club each week. This time though there was some sadness as she shared that with her recent health issues she hasn’t had the energy to run kids clubs, but the kids still come and hang out with her. Her dream is to see a youth centre where the kids and young people of Alex can come and play, work, learn and grow in safety.

You see in Alex the kids as young as 3 or 4, when they are not at Stella’s place, play unsupervised in the streets and gutters where the sewage runs and household waste is thrown out on to the street because there isn’t adequate sanitation or refuse management. Young people loiter in groups board to distraction and violent crime is an every day occurrence. The police can do little because its hard to track people down in such an overcrowded setting, and often the corruption in the service continues to erode their credibility and effectiveness.

Stella lives in the same house that her parents lived in and her grandparents before them. It’s a small three room affair. Often what happens is that families live together and as they expand new members build shacks of corrugated iron and wood, onto the side of the property. In this way the overcrowding continues and the pressure on inadequate sanitation, water and infrastructure builds. Stella is running for local election and her dream is to campaign for a solution to the housing problem in Alex.

Stella is no stranger to campaigning for change, during the Apartheid regime she was a freedom fighter and earned at least one stint in prison for her involvement in activism. Now that apartheid is over she is one of the many committed citizens still fighting for freedom for the poor and oppressed in her country. Whilst we sat with her she shared how much it meant to her to be part of the Fusion family, the significance of knowing that others across the country and globe hold her in their hearts and minds. There have been many times when she wanted to give up and not get up, when the task seemed too huge and her efforts pointless but she shared that knowing that she was part of this wider family gave her hope and the strength to keep going. I was humbled as I heard, I have so much to learn from Mamma Stella.