Bringing Empathy Back to Life

| 7/22/2011 11:19:50 AM


When someone is suffering, it can be agony to fully listen—we’re compelled to jump in with advice or stories of our own trials, filling any awkward space or moment of silent air with word upon word. The first rule of empathy, however, is to simply shut up. So says Miki Kashtan (if much more eloquently) on Tikkun Daily.

Kashtan writes that giving our full presence is the most important step in practicing true empathy, and it doesn’t require us to utter a thing:

There is a high correlation between one person’s listening presence and the other person’s sense of not being alone, and this is communicated without words. We can be present with someone whose language we don’t understand, who speaks about circumstances we have never experienced, or whose reactions are baffling to us. It’s a soul orientation and intentionality to simply be with another.

When we achieve full presence, empathic understanding follows, Kashtan continues:

Full empathic presence includes the breaking open of our heart to take in another’s humanity. . . . We listen to their words and their story, and allow ourselves to be affected by the experience of what it would be like.

Then we understand. Empathic understanding is different from empathic presence. We can have presence across any barrier, and it’s still a gift. If we also understand, even without saying anything, I believe the other person’s sense of being heard increases, and they are even less alone with the weight of their experience.

There are signs that empathy is on the decline, with narcissism working to elbow it out of our modern lives. As Utne Reader noted (May-June 2011), University of Michigan psychologist Sara Konrath found that empathy levels among college students who took the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI) plummeted between 1979 and 2009. The greatest drops were in empathic concern and perspective taking—the ability to imagine another person’s point of view.

But don’t lament the inexpugnable death of human compassion yet. Empathy is in us—even science says so. This month, University of Southern California professor Lisa Aziz-Zadeh mapped how the brain generates empathy, painting it as a naturally occurring emotion, reports Times of India. “It appears that both the intuitive and rationalizing parts of the brain work in tandem to create the sensation of empathy,” Aziz-Zadeh told the Times. “People do it automatically.”

steve eatenson
8/2/2011 11:37:37 AM

It seems to me that for a person to feel empathy for others they have to feel very safe. Sadly, we live in a world that does not promote feelings of safety. News coverage draws attention by featuring adrenalin enhancing stories of tragedy and horrific loss. Politicians and business owners cheat the rest of us constantly, in every way they can, to enhance thier own positions. Marketers want us to be brainwashed into attachmet to material goods and services which, in reality, can always be lost. Fear is "normal" for most of us, even those who deny they are afraid. Narcissists are very frightened people who are terrified to take the focus of their attention off themselves. We are conditioned to laugh at the worlds funniest home videos which feature people getting hurt. Movies and books and TV constantly show violence. Politicians get us into wars and tell us getting killed or maimed and killing and maiming is the honerable, patriotic thing to do if you love your country. What a sad, sad mess we have created.

Julie Brown
7/26/2011 11:53:36 PM

When Barack Obama was running for the Illinois Senate, as a State Senator, I interviewed him on my little radio show. It was scheduled for a 3 minute interview but lasted about 20 minutes I think. He talked of his main concern being that we had an "empathy crisis" in our country. I wish he would go back to that. It's the root of all political evil - to lack empathy. I believe the key to empathy is imagination. This is why so many "actors" are "liberals." They have incredible imaginations. Only with imagination can you put yourself in someone elses shoes and imagine the circumstances, feelings, struggles, motivations, etc. Kids in school today are taught to learn for the test, there is no emphasis on imagination at all. The games kids play today have no place for imagination. Every mean Republican I know ("Well I picked myself up by my bootstraps so you should too") sucks at games and tasks involving imagination. I think even a narcisist can have empathy if they have a good imagination. A good listener can lack empathy because they hear what the person is saying but can't imagine the truth of it for themselves. To bring back empathy, we must demand more imaginative teachers and assignments in school, and in our own homes.

7/23/2011 5:48:05 PM

May I suggest a further resources to learn more about empathy and compassion. The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion. I posted a link to your article in our Empathy and Compassion Magazine The latest news about empathy and compassion from around the world

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