Empathy

Thoreau-empathy-quote

I love books and am always on the lookout for a new one.

This last couple of weeks, I have been reading a book called Empathy by Roman Krznaric, an English philosopher. It was recommended to me by a guy called Ben who I met on a tour in Langkawi last year. Ben and his new wife September were on their honeymoon and we were chatting over lunch about all sorts of different things.

Ben was telling me about his visit to the Empathy Museum in London and what a profound experience it had been. I was fascinated! At the Empathy Museum, the visitors are able to experience different peoples’ lives by literally standing in their shoes while reading their stories. The exhibition is called “A Mile In My Shoes”. The purpose is to help develop their ability to be empathetic. It is all about seeing the world from another person’s point of view and to feel their experience of the world – “feel“ being the key word here.

Thoughts and beliefs around empathy have certainly had some huge shifts over the last few decades. For a long time it was believed that humans were primarily self-centred, self-focused beings.

In the 17th century, English Philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote about how, if we were left ungoverned it would be a “warre of all against all”. In his book Leviathan he concludes that we are inherently self-seeking and violent creatures who need an authoritarian government to keep us in check. Wow!!

As we move through the centuries, Hobbes’ ideas were supported and built on by the likes of Adam Smith, Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud. This view of us being selfish and aggressive is all a bit depressing really!

Astonishingly enough though, Smith and Darwin couldn’t ignore the fact that we really are social animals and the theme of their work did start to shift over time to acknowledge that.

By the early 20th century, as psychology was becoming an established science, empathy started to get the attention it deserved. More and more research was conducted and the data was very conclusive: we do have an empathetic side, some of us more than others.

What I have been most enjoying about this book though, is the techniques that help us develop more empathy. From what I have read, when each person has a well-developed sense of empathy, the world has to, by default, become a better, kinder and more peaceful place. We simply wouldn’t harm each other, animals or the environment in the way we currently do if we had a deep sense of empathy. That being said, we are coming along in leaps and bounds.

So how do we develop our empathy? Well, the book is full of all sorts of different habits that we can develop to become more empathetic – six habits to be exact. There was one idea that so inspired me that I wanted to share it in a blog, it’s called “experiential empathy”.

Experiential empathy is where we literally take on the life and activities of someone else. One of the more famous examples of this was documented in a book called Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin. He documented his experience of spending six weeks in the Southern American States as a black man in 1959. He dyed his skin using black pigment and then went out into the world to experience it from the point of view of an African American in a very racially prejudiced time.

It was tough to say the least!! Segregation was still alive and well. He was spoken to poorly, people continually looked over him or through him, he was yelled at for no apparent reason, and generally treated badly. This was something that was very unfamiliar to him – being a white male – and it made the experiment even more powerful and shocking.

This is an extreme example of experiential empathy and there are many other examples. Gunter Wallraff, a German investigative journalist, spent two years posing as an immigrant worker doing low paid jobs and experiencing the conditions that these workers were subject to. This experience lead him to write a book (which sold two million copies) and the profits went to legal aid for these workers. Two American born men, Tushnar Vashisht and Matthew Cherian, who were highly affluent and university educated, returned to their native India and lived off $2 a day for three weeks to experience what poverty felt like.

For many of us, to be a part of an experiment like this might be a bit too challenging but we can have our own, more simple experiential empathy experience. It is as easy as halving your weekly food shopping bill to see what it would be like for a family with less money than you.

It could mean doing a “God Swap”: if you are Christian, go to a mosque and sit with people who follow Islam. If you are Muslim, go to a Catholic church to see what it’s like to be Catholic for a day. If you are a rampant meat lover, be vegetarian for a week. If you never worry about money, go and sit on the street with a tin in front of you and see the world from the point of view of a homeless person. If you work Monday to Friday and your partner stays at home, take their role for a week and see what it’s like to walk in their shoes.

The purpose of doing this as I said earlier is to grow our empathetic side. Empathy CAN be learnt, yet like any learnt behaviour, there has to be practice.

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