I wish more of the world were more empathic. When marketing tells us we’re special beyond anyone else, it’s easy to lose the ability to relate to the people around us. Pity carries judgment (“you poor thing”), and sympathy isn’t always welcome (“I’m sorry you did that to yourself”). But empathy, the exercise of sharing another person’s state of mind and emotions, requires recognizing that the other person is experiencing something unique and personal. It raises the object of your empathy from an autonomous, ambiguous other to a sentient, whole person whom you are trying to understand and share an experience with. It’s not an easy task, but it’s available to everyone, even psychopaths.
Empathy isn’t only relevant in interpersonal relations—it’s vital even at the societal level. One of the most beautiful examples I’ve heard recently was at a wonderful lecture titled, “The Humanities in the World” given by Mariët Westermann of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. As an example of the humanities addressing a very pertinent, politically relevant problem, she pointed to the Multaka project in Berlin.
Germany welcomed a huge number of Syrian and Iraqi refugees into its borders in recent years—as well as the attendant cultural bewilderment. The Berlin state museums realized that as they held many Syrian and Iraqi artifacts, they represented a direct connection for the refugees to their homes. This was especially meaningful given the rampant destruction of historical artifacts and sites.
So the museums trained a pilot group of refugees as docents who gave tours in both Arabic and German. This had multiple aims and effects. The docents could extend the connection of the museums more widely with their communities, they could provide more personal accounts of the artifacts than anyone else could, they actively improved their German, and the project started important and informative dialogues with the museum staff.
Different refugee visitors reacted differently. Many were grateful for this connection to the homes they left. Others appreciated the care and reverence with which these artifacts were held. Yet others found the extraction of these artifacts into Germany problematic. But having this space to have these conversations openly is a great benefit for all. Multaka is Arabic for meeting point and is intended as such. The project has expanded and continues to evolve.
A final wonderful outcome involved many refugees’ curiosity about the history of this western country that took them in. The images of the years during and after WWII were especially salient. To see how Germany went from post-war devastation to the world-leading powerhouse that it is today gave hope for the future of their home countries.
I love this story because it’s one of facilitating empathy—experiencing each others’ existence—between communities in such a direct, meaningful way, and it’s happening in a place we think of as indulgent, stolid, and insulated from modern life. The effects go beyond those immediately involved. It humanizes new neighbors. What better than the humanities to ease this very human situation?
And yet, empathy isn’t absolutely good. Read Paul Bloom for more, but consider what empathy affords the manipulative. Also, empathy is a demanding exercise. One could argue that empathy matters most between those who are most different, and in those cases it is not a spontaneous reflection, but an active effort to understand and imagine. This means we naturally empathize most with those who are most familiar or attractive to us. It also means empathy can be exhausting and lead to burn-out, especially if you’re syncing with a very painful experience.
What may be more useful is non-empathetic compassion. That is, wishing better for someone else without taking on their burden. There’s research indicating that this mindset leads to positivity, kindness, and eagerness to help in contrast with the burden and discomfort assumed with empathy. And when the direction of our compassion is guided by moral reasoning, then we can overcome our cognitive biases to do more good.
So then why do I wish more of the world were more empathic? Because of the acute reminder of the humanity of people not like ourselves. Because of the love that’s demonstrated by choosing to suffer along with someone else. Because sometimes what we need most is merely to be understood.
So tell me your story, friends, share with me your pains. I will listen.