Empathy at a Cultural Threshold

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Empathy has taken somewhat of a beating lately, as Paul Bloom’s Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion has made the rounds. I’ve not read the book, so what I know of it comes from third-party reactions, not enough for me to make any intelligent critique or defense. After all is said and done, though, I would guess that most of us would champion empathy, even if we agree that it can have a negative impact when misguided.

Christopher O’Shaughnessy is author of the book Arrivals, Departures and the Adventures In-Between. He’s also, per his website, an “international speaker and globetrotting adventurer” and, per the video below—an excerpt from his keynote address at last year’s Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference—an empathy advocate. In fact, the video begins with him saying,

I want to tell you a story that emphasizes for me when I first sort of imprinted how important empathy was.

His story takes place after he entered a new school as an eighth grader and met an Eastern European girl who had just made her first international move. O’Shaugnessy, who was born in England to US military parents and spent chunks of his growing-up years on alternating sides of “the pond,” understood what she was going through and befriended her while others made her the object of their bullying.

His first story ends with a second story that takes place years later, in a bank, with a suspicious character, a note passed to a teller, annoying hope, and leaping tears.

It’s worth a listen.

This video is posted at Youtube in the Culturs.guru channel, which says that “CULTURS is a global multicultural philanthropic brand that brings lifestyle content to liminal identities.” I wasn’t familiar with the word liminal, but quick Google search told me that it means “occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.” I like that. There’s plenty of room for empathy in that place.

[photo: “Empathy Picture,” by The Shopping Sherpa, used under a Creative Commons license]

Empathy: A Ladder into Dark Places

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When Brené Brown, a professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, discovered that “the way to live is with vulnerability,” it flew in the face of her training as a researcher. She had been taught to control and predict, the antithesis to being vulnerable.

She voiced this in a 2010 TED Talk, and the video went viral. Two years later, she followed it up with another TED Talk, this time on the topic of shame. While not as popular as her first video, it’s powerful in its own right. In it, she shares about the response to her earlier talk and stresses two basic points: “Vulnerability is not weakness,” and “We have to talk about shame.”

To combat shame, she says, we need empathy, because “empathy’s the antidote to shame.”

If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you put the same amount in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive. The two most powerful words when we’re in struggle: me too.

That brings us to a third video. This one is a short animation, adapted from a presentation Brown made on vulnerability to the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA). The RSA piece is titled “The Power of Empathy.”

“Empathy is a choice,” says Brown, “and it’s a vulnerable choice.”

In this short, embedded below, she refers to four attributes of empathy, identified by nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman:

  1. Seeing the world as others see it
  2. Being non-judgemental
  3. Understanding another’s feelings
  4. Communicating that understanding

The animation is a nice touch in fleshing out Brown’s words. I especially like the image of lowering a ladder down into another person’s darkness. One of the books we have on our bookshelf at home is Bonnie Keen’s A Ladder out of Depression: God’s Healing Grace for the Emotionally Overwhelmed. It is nice to see that ladder not just as a metaphor for recovery, but for empathy, as well. (As an aside, I also like how, when you can’t see her face, Brown sounds a lot like Martha Stewart.)

I do, though, have a bone to pick with Brown—bear with me here, or just skip straight to the video. While she does a great job of describing empathy, she does so at the expense of sympathy. I really don’t think that empathy is “very different” from sympathy. I don’t agree that “sympathy drives disconnection.” Brown describes empathy as “feeling with people,” which actually sounds to me like a good description of sympathy. In fact, when the word sympathy came about over 400 years ago, it was from the Greek sin, “together,” plus pathos, “feeling.” . . . in other words, a “feeling together.”

Empathy, on the other hand, is a relatively new term, introduced into the English language by psychologist Edward Bradford Titchener in 1909. Titchener got the idea for empathy from einfühlung, a German word crafted 50 years earlier to describe a form of art appreciation based on projecting one’s personality into the art being viewed—thus, “a feeling in.”

Over time, sympathy has had to give ground as empathy has gained the high road, and sympathy has come to imply something more like “detached pity” or “a lack of compassion.”

But of empathy, Titchener writes,

We have a natural tendency to feel ourselves into what we perceive or imagine. As we read about the forest, we may, as it were, become the explorer; we feel for ourselves the gloom, the silence, the humidity, the oppression, the sense of lurking danger; everything is strange, but it is to us that the strange experience has come. We are told of a shocking accident, and we gasp and shrink and feel nauseated as we imagine it; we are told of some new and delightful fruit, and our mouth waters as if we were about to taste it. This tendency to feel oneself into a situation is called empathy, on the analogy of sympathy, which is feeling together with another. . . .

One could even make the case that inserting our feelings into another’s situation can get in the way of seeing the individualness of that situation. Sometimes it is better not to say, “I know how you feel,” but rather “I can’t imagine how hard this is for you.”

As Brown explains, sometimes the best thing to say is very little, something like “I don’t even know what to say right now, I’m just so glad you told me.”

Oh, well. Thank you for letting me step in and defend sympathy. I think it’s gotten a bad rap. I think it’s been misunderstood. And I empathize with that.

To see why a blog about cross-cultural issues is interested in the topic of empathy and listening, go here.]

(Brené Brown, “Listening to Shame,” TED, March 2012; Theresa Wiseman, A Concept Analysis of Empathy,” Journal of Advance Nursing, vol 23, issue 6, 1996; Edward Bradford Titchener, A Beginner’s Psychology, Macmillan, 1915)

[photo: “The Light,” by Amanda Wilson, used under a Creative Commons license]

“Solitude”: Familiar but Often Forgotten

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Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s famous poem is also published under the title “The Way of the World.” It may be the way of the world, but it does not have to be our way.

SOLITUDE.

Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone;
For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth,
But has trouble enough of its own.

Sing, and the hills will answer;
Sigh, it is lost on the air;
The echoes bound to a joyful sound,
But shrink from voicing care.

Rejoice, and men will seek you;
Grieve, and they turn and go;
They want full measure of all your pleasure,
But they do not need your woe.

Be glad, and your friends are many;
Be sad, and you lose them all;
There are none to decline your nectar’d wine,
But alone you must drink life’s gall.

Feast, and your halls are crowded;
Fast, and the world goes by.
Succeed and give, and it helps you live,
But no man can help you die.

There is room in the halls of pleasure
For a large and lordly train,
But one by one we must all file on
Through the narrow aisles of pain.

(Wilcox, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Poems of Passion, W. B. Conkey, 1883)

[photo: “Solitude,” by murielle29, used under a Creative Commons license]

Put Your Phone under a Bushel

Since having someone to listen to them is so important to missionaries and other cross-cultural workers, I thought I’d put together a list of ways to be a good listener. One of the first things I thought of was

Let the person you’re talking with know that you’re giving him your full attention by turning your cell phone to silent and putting it on the table.

phonecupSounds good, right?

Wrong. And here’s why:

Just having a cell phone in view, even when it’s not being used—even when it’s not turned on—hinders the development of relationships. This is the finding of a study conducted by Andrew Przybylski and Netta Weinstein, of the University of Essex, as published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

In the first of two experiments, Przybylski and Weinstein paired up strangers and asked them to talk about something that had happened to them over the past month. The participants left their belongings in a waiting area, and then they went to a private booth for their conversations. The booth contained two chairs, facing each other, with a table off to the side. For half of the pairs, on the table was a cell phone on top of a book. For the other half, the phone was replaced  with a pocket notebook.

The result was that partners who had a conversation in the presence of a cell phone felt less close to each other and had a lower quality of relationship compared to their counterparts who talked without a phone nearby.

Since the conversation in the first experiment dealt with a “moderately intimate topic,” the second experiment looked at the effects of a cell phone on less intimate conversations (about plastic trees) and more intimate conversations (about “the most meaningful events of the past year”).

In this exercise, the researchers continued to look at the quality of relationships and also added evaluations of the levels of trust and empathy. The results showed that the phone had little or no effect on those who were talking on the casual topic, but participants reported lower levels of relationship quality, trust, and perceived empathy when the phone was in view. And even though the more meaningful conversation topics encouraged more closeness and trust when the phone was absent, when the phone was present, the levels of intimacy were actually lower than when the topic was focused only on plastic trees.

It’s notable that these effects happened even when participants didn’t remember seeing the phone in the room.

So what is a good listener to do?

Here are some suggestions:

  1. Turn your phone to silent or turn it off. Turning it to vibrate won’t do. Anything that pulls your attention to the phone, even if you ignore it, will disrupt the relationship you’re trying to form.
  2. Don’t put your phone where it can be seen.
  3. You might suggest to your partner that he not get out his phone either. Explain to him how important your meeting is and tell him how you don’t want anything to hinder him or you. (Cross-cultural workers who have visited an embassy know what it’s like to have a meeting and have to leave their cell phones outside. If the meeting’s important enough, the sacrifice can be made.)
  4. If a true emergency requires you to keep your phone on, understand that you will be distracted not only by every call and text that comes in, emergency or not, but by the presence of the phone itself. At the very least, apologize and understand the limitations of a meeting under those conditions.

Don’t let your phone, or anyone’s phone, hinder you from fully investing in someone. Don’t let the Siren song of your social networks pull you away from the person across from you who needs a face-to-face conversation. And, of course, don’t be the person who answers calls, who texts, who tweets, and who checks Facebook while he’s supposed to be paying attention to the person in front of him. That’s not the way to grow a relationship, to foster trust, and to show empathy. And aren’t those the things that a good listener wants to do?

(Anddrew K. Przybylski and Netta Weinstein, “Can You Connect with Me Now? How the Presence of Mobile Communication Technology Influences Face-to-Face Conversation Quality,” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, July 19, 2012)

[photo: “iPhone + COFFEE,” by Kondo Atsushi, used under a Creative Commons license]

Conversation: noun, “a turning with”

Steve Smith, author of The Jesus Life and co-founder of Potter’s Inn, recently wrote in his blog,

[I]n the course of life’s seasons, we need to have spiritual conversations with people who are good listeners. Let me be clear here, most people are not good listeners. They listen for facts not feelings. They listen for what they hope to hear. They listen when it may not cost them something.

A spiritual conversation is a reciprocal dialogue between two people where thoughts, opinions and feelings are shared and received. It’s two-way. Not one way.

People who have gone through major transitions—and others who have encountered loss—need good listeners. But what is necessary to be someone who listens well, to be someone who nurtures spiritual conversations? How about compassion and empathy and comfort?

Following is a list of words that I associate with good listeners. We all know what the words mean, but we’ve become fairly complacent in using them. Therefore, as a way to jumpstart our thinking and to help us do a better job of living them out, I’m pairing them with the literal meanings from their origins (with the help of the  Online Etymology Dictionary and other resources). My intent is not to “correct” their modern definitions but simply to give depth to what we already know.

For instance, today a companion is a friend or partner. But the word companion is formed from two parts that originally meant “with” and “bread.” So a companion was someone who shared a meal with another. Even now we understand the link between sharing food and sharing our hearts. Here’s what Smith says about companionship:

I wrote in The Jesus Life that spiritual conversations take place at the table where we eat our meals. . . . It’s never an intent when you ask someone for lunch–to share protein, carbs and water with someone. No, when you ask someone for lunch, you’re really meaning, “Hey, let’s get together so we can share what’s been going on in our lives. It’s been too long. How about next Tuesday at noon at the deli?”  That’s the stuff of conversations where hearts connect and souls meet and people who are lonely become spiritual companions.

Now, here’s the rest of my list:

acknowledge: “to admit understanding or knowing”
from a blending of Old English on, “into,” and cnawan, “recognize,” with Middle English knowlechen “admit”

affirm: “to strengthen”
from Latin ad, “to,” plus firmare, “make firm”

advocate: “someone called to help or plead”
Latin ad plus vocare, for “to” and “to call”

comfort: “to strengthen much”
Late Latin com, “very,” and fortis, “strong”

commiserate: “to lament with”
from Latin com, “with,” and miserari, “to feel pity”

communicate: “to make common”
from Latin commun, “common,” plus the verb suffix icare

companion: “eating partner”
Latin com, “with,” and panis, “bread, food”

compassion: “a suffering with”
Latin com and pati, meaning “with” and “to suffer”

concern: “a sifting” or “comprehension”
from Latin com, “with,” and cernere, “to sift”

confide: “to trust strongly”
Latin com plus fidere, meaning “very” and “to trust”

console: “to give much comfort or solace”
from Latin com, “very,” and solari, “to comfort”

contact: “to touch with”
from Latin com, “together,” and tangere, “to touch”

conversation: “a turning with”
Latin com, meaning “with,” and vertare, meaning “turn about”

empathy: “a feeling in”
Greek en and pathos, meaning “in” and “feeling”

encourage: “to add heart or bravery”
Old French en, “make, put in,” and corage, “heart, innermost feelings”

sympathy: “a feeling together”
Greek syn, “together,” plus pathos, “feeling”

understand: “to stand in the midst of”
Old English under, “between, among,” plus stand

May we better understand these ideas and, in so doing, better understand each other. May we put them into practice. May we all become better companions . . . and better listeners.

(“Steve Smith, “The Power of a Spiritual Conversation,” Steve and Gwen Smith, September 26, 2012)

[photo: “61098,” by Drew Herron, used under a Creative Commons license]