All the light we can learn to see, Part 1.

A dear friend asked me, “What are the seeds of peace?”  My answer was prompt, “Empathy and compassion.”

What IS empathy?  It’s 1) the ability to put oneself in the shoes of others, to see the world as they see it; 2) to feel events–particularly painful events—as others feel them; and 3) to manage one’s own emotional responses to pain and grief in others so that instead of being overwhelmed, one can to be helpful.

In a world beset by competition and conflict, empathy can help alleviate tendencies to be violent and inhumane towards others, particularly  others labeled as dangerous and less than human.

What feeds the roots of empathy? One answer is: literature, specifically literature demonstrating the ways that pain, fear, love, joy, and a remarkable range of human reactions unite all of humanity, regardless of the divisive little categories like age, sex, religion, and ethnicity that we shove people into.

One such book is All Quiet on the Western Front  by Erich Maria Remarque, based on Rmarque’s experiences as a German soldier in World War I. I first read the novel my sophomore year in high school. At that naïve age, I found myself stunned to recognize that the characters who were wringing my heart were Germans, German boys and men of the type who attacked our boys and men in two world wars. Germans, yet so human, so vulnerable, so inherently good.

Read or reread the book. How could anyone not empathize with Remarque’s character Paul Bäumer, a boy who is himself engulfed in empathy–and compassion– after witnessing the death of a French soldier whom he has stabbed:

“‘But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony–Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy?'” All Quiet on the Western Front, Chapter 9, p. 223.

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13 Responses to All the light we can learn to see, Part 1.

  1. Thank you, Kathie, for this short, potent, poignant article, so timely indeed. The quote at the end is especially moving, with its universal, humanitarian message. A broken heart is an open heart when it is rescued by the wisdom of empathy and compassion.

  2. Gold Dust Twin says:

    Thanks for the definition of empathy. I think if someone had asked me for my definition, I would have said “putting yourself in the shoes of the other,” but I can see that it could also mean feeling what other people are feeling–like crying at a sad scene in a movie. I would not have thought of that business of managing your own emotions, but I do know that sometimes all the sad things, and mean things, we hear about can make me feel sad and hopeless. And sometimes, I guess, somewhat helpless to do anything about it all.

  3. LB says:

    In my first comment here on Engaging Peace I questioned whether “selective empathy” might be a form of moral disengagement. It seems to me the dark side of (uninformed) empathy, no matter how sincerely felt, is that it can blind us to the facts and bigger issues, making us less effective in expressing inclusive forms of compassion and more susceptible to emotional manipulation and bias.

    It’s not that our empathy and emotional connections to others and their suffering are necessarily bad in and of themselves, only that our personal and collective compassion is more likely to be in service to the greatest good when *minds* and hearts are open and engaged ~ which means rational analysis and critical thinking play a role as well.

    One example of selective empathy is in the wearing safety pins to show our empathy and support for the most vulnerable here in the U.S., while having cast our votes for candidates who support a system which oppresses, exploits, displaces and/or kills millions of these very same vulnerable individuals both here and abroad. I also wonder about the wrong assumptions some people might make about those who *don’t* wear safety pins.

    Most of us can relate to watching or reading some news story and feeling immediately overwhelmed by our emotional reaction to an apparent and perceived injustice. The problem (or challenge) then becomes how to patiently explore all of the surrounding issues and facts which may not be as obvious. Group emotions can exert a powerful influence, making it difficult for each of us as individuals to remain compassionate, centered, and rationally connected to bigger truths. It can be tempting to jump to the same (sometimes narrow) conclusions as our peers, tempting to limit our empathy and focus on just that one thing to the exclusion of everything and everyone else.

    One of my favorite Martin Luther King quotes is, “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

    I think most of us can relate, I know I can. It’s why I try to remind myself to always make the effort to become more informed, even if something tugs at my heart and seems obvious. One way is by reading articles critical of whatever it is I’ve assumed to be true and comments as well, or by reading transcripts of trials, then vetting everything I’ve read (or heard) before reaching a final conclusion *if* I ever do. In a more practical sense, and as a way of responding to the suffering and more immediate concerns of those within my community, I sometimes carry plastic tarps or warm socks and hats, articles of clothing, sandwiches and fruit, to pass out to the homeless folks I see around me. It’s not a big thing and won’t change anyone’s life, but it helps me to do *something*.

    I found an interesting video link yesterday, and though I may not agree with all of the examples the two speakers used (we *all* have moral biases and intellectual blindspots), their hour long discussion, “Empathy, Is It All It’s Cracked Up To Be?” about empathy and compassion is very thought provoking:

    I appreciate the quote you included at the end of your post, Kathie. Also your understanding of how empathy and compassion work best together.

    • kathiemm says:

      Thank you for another thoughtful comment, LB. I think you make a great point about selective empathy being a form of moral disengagement. I love the quote from MLK–thanks for sharing it. I do have to take issue with one point you said: Handing out tarps, food, clothing, etc. to the homeless is not a small thing and it can make a difference in lives. I think we are most likely to make progress towards a more humane society precisely by starting on the local, community level. Much harder these days to influence the federal government but a number of states have implemented programs that the Feds would not. And look at the difference “ordinary” citizens made at Standing Rock. Please keep up your good work and appreciate the contribution you are making.

  4. Barbara says:

    I have an amazing relative whose concern for the homeless led him to teach himself to sew warm fleece mittens for them. First he bought one sewing machine, taught himself how to operate that, and then began turning out other warm clothing. He currently has 5 sewing machines and is continuing his efforts to make life more bearable for others less fortunate. He is my idea of a genuine hero, although he would insist he was no such thing. That’s what makes him the kind of hero we all admire.

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  6. kathie says:

    A clinical psychologist, Dr. Jeffrey Rosen, recently posted a lively and informative essay on empathy on his blog. He made a strong case against another professor who had argued that empathy is bad.
    I suggest you read Dr. Rubin’s post and decide whether it changes your views on the value of empathy:
    Empathetic: To Be, Or Not to Be?

    • LB says:

      For several years I was a regular volunteer at a clinic offering alternative/complementary forms of healing; two practitioners would work in tandem on one client. Clients came in seeking help for various issues, ranging from physical to emotional/psychological. After one particular session, our client (who was in her early 30’s and unemployed at the time of her visit) shared how anxious she’d been feeling in trying to decide whether or not to (temporarily) return home to care for her elderly parents, one of whom was dying. She volunteered how loving and supportive they’d always been but also that she didn’t want to go and was struggling with guilty feelings, especially since her parents had made no demands on her and would accept whatever decision she made without resorting to emotional manipulation.

      While my fellow practitioner and myself both empathized with our client’s situation, our responses were very different ~ maybe because I was decades older and, unlike my co-worker had cared for both parents at the end of their lives.

      The woman I volunteered with immediately and (strongly) suggested our client let go of her guilt, telling her it was worthless and had no value or purpose other than to hold her back from doing what was best for her. My response was slightly different; I told our client I understood her conflicted feelings but hoped she’d carefully consider the deeper long-term ramifications before deciding. I also encouraged her to face the roots of her guilt without resisting its underlying message wherever it might lead. I told her only she could determine the usefulness of the guilt she was feeling and whether or not it came in service, as a healthy function of conscience.

      Though I’d never argue against the potential benefits of inclusive forms of empathy and informed acts of compassion (see previous comment about selective empathy), maybe philosopher Martha Nussbaum (who also views empathy as having great value) says it best when she states “. . . empathy is a mental ability highly relevant to compassion, although it is itself both fallible and morally neutral.”

      “Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions” by Martha C. Nussbaum

      • Hi LB,

        That’s quite a challenging situation that you have been thrust into–trying to be helpful to someone struggling with what to do about caring for elderly parents. And then, at the same time, finding that your views, and the views of the other practitioner that you work with are so different.

        As I read your comment, I did have some thoughts that perhaps you might find worthwhile.

        I like to make a personal distinction between guilt and responsibility. As I view guilt, this means we feel that what we are doing is wrong and we feel we deserve punishment for what we are doing.

        I don’t think guilt is an optimal way to live one’s life, though it may be better than cold hearted total non-caring.

        In contrast to feelings of guilt are feelings that go along with taking responsibility for a particular situation. When we take responsibility for a situation, as I personally view it, we admit that we can play a part in what is happening that can be helpful. Additionally, with feelings of responsibility, we reject the view that we deserve punishment for not doing everything we could possibly do to be helpful. We, instead, experience fully, by closing our eyes, the physical sensations that well up with the experience of responsibility, and we accept that these sensations will create the search for the best we could do, given our set of circumstances. We can always do more, and more, and more, but no one can do absolutely everything. We permit the acceptance of the feelings of responsibility, see where this leads, without punishing yourself, and this will be your best guide. I would support that your client does have some responsibility in helping her parents, but leave what specific help to undertake to this process of fully experiencing the feelings that go with responsibility. I wonder if this conceptualization might be of help in providing support to your clients.

        My Best,

        • LB says:

          Hi Jeff ~ Based on parts of your response, it seems you may be describing a neurotic and useless form of guilt which can torment us long *after* a decision has been made and long after we’ve (hopefully) dealt with any practical and moral repercussions ~ whereas I was referring to the healthy inner promptings of conscience we sometimes experience *prior* to making a decision, typically when we’re ignoring our inner voice.

          Then too, sometimes it’s a matter of semantics. The word ‘guilt’ can be used to describe the pangs of conscience we experience when we ignore or about to cross some moral threshold.

          Neither I nor my fellow volunteer were aware of all of the particulars of our client’s situation, only that something about her way of looking at it was deeply troubling to her ~ which is why, as I said, I suggested she examine the source of her feelings without ignoring them. She was facing an important decision, one she’d have to live with for the rest of her life. Only she could decide.

          More importantly, what I intuited from our client was that what she was actually seeking was an absolution from her own responsibility in choosing, and that this was the true source of her anxiety.

          I agree with you when you said, “We, instead, experience fully, by closing our eyes, the physical sensations that well up with the experience of responsibility, and we accept that these sensations will create the search for the best we could do, given our set of circumstances. We can always do more, and more, and more, but no one can do absolutely everything. We permit the acceptance of the feelings of responsibility, see where this leads . . .”

          Yes, that was exactly my point. And why I responded by suggesting our client examine rather than resist her conflicted feelings ~ maybe she was in a position to help care for her parents in some way and maybe she wasn’t. Either way, it wasn’t our place to absolve her of her responsibility to choose.

          All the best to you as well,

  7. Thank you, Kathie, for your kind words about my blog post, “Empathetic: To Be Or Not to Be?” Much appreciated! And by the way I love how you illustrated the impact of literature on the development of empathy. Those lines from “All quiet on the Western Front” get to me every time.
    Warm Regards,

  8. Pingback: Developing Empathy Through Literature | From Insults To Respect

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