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Thoughts on Empathy

I am re-reading Iain McGilchrist's great book The Master and his Emissary: the divided brain and the making of the Western World. It's a huge work, and repays every minute of every hour in the reading. And it stimulated me to share a few thoughts about Empathy, which is one of its main themes.

Empathy is sometimes called 'the ability to stand in someone else's shoes', and this has always seemed to me to be an inadequate description. If we read Martin Buber's I and Thou, we find that he gives a lot of attention to letting other people and the world 'come to fetch us.' This is, for Buber, a state of Empathy, because it does without ego and the control that goes with it. If I choose to be without will, then others and the world I experience can come to 'fetch' me without me controlling their advance. 

Standing in someone else's shoes, though, suggests that I'm still in control. I am saying, 'here, give me your shoes so that I can stand in them.' I'm in charge of the action. But if I let go of that being in charge, and allow another person to come to 'fetch'me, then I'm no longer in a place of occupation, of seeking intellectual understanding. We are both in a place where a deeper unity can rapidly emerge. I am no longer seeking the transaction of 'getting into your shoes' in an empathetic manner. I am going straight to the place where Empathy can help us both stand together. 

Markus is next to me now, writing on his computer. Sue is in the next room, talking to a friend. Outside, the sky is greying over in the heat. I pause for a second. I say to myself 'I-Thou.' Markus, Sue and the sky are aspects of the 'Thou' I am asking to 'fetch' my 'I'. None of them knows I am writing this, least of all the sky, or saying the words, except me. I let go, and the presence of those two people, each with their special resonances, and the covering of the sky that hold us in its arch, comes to fetch me. 

It seems to me that becoming adept at Empathy doesn't depend on getting into shoes; it depends on the decision to allow the power of empathy to take over, the decision to stand aside and let it work its magic. Empathy's power kicks in when we cease trying to manage it. 

Putting it another way, it seems to me that if we give up trying to be empathetic, and instead step aside so that Empathy, its spirit and power, can occupy us, we are more likely to become its transmitters. Another person can fetch me, and that can be more powerful than me trying to get into his shoes. 

In an individual, team, or family, or community, Empathy is present, as McGlichrist shows, whether or not we are aware of it. Perhaps all we need is to cultivate the awareness, and then get out of the way. 

 

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