Wondering About Empathy 1


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Proposition: first, experience; then, words and stories.

I walk in the door and speak to Larry. Next Frieda is coming out of the kitchen and calling, “Michael!” I know from the pure sound of her voice and the energy of her movement what she wants, even before the words register. Then I am speaking words to myself about what she wants, being annoyed, and saying to her, “Not now, I am in a rush!” Whosh! I am up the stairs and gone, but all the while justifying, with words, my judgment and reactions. And picturing her talking to herself about her own reactions. We will probably never discuss this experience with each other, although we will, almost for sure, ruminate a lot over it.

The power of empathy is incredible. That is, what it can do, virtually at the speed light, staggers our imagination when we allow ourselves the luxury to reflect on it. It is the primal source of social life, compassion, and love. Such power and relatively so little attention and support for nurturing it from our culture.

Our stories come right behind the raw experiences we have through it. We use our stories to tell ourselves and each other about what is going on, what an experience means, what we should do about it or did about it, or should have done about. Somewhere along that pathway we weave and re-weave secondary stories to justify our initial story.

Very frequently, however, we lose all sense of the sequence and end up thinking our stories are the experiences we have had, cutting ourselves off from what is really happening and wanted.

Can you picture yourself making love without making any stories or having any distractions. Just direct, immediate experience of, with, and through your lover?

Can you picture yourself hearing others in normal conversations without making any stories or having any distractions? Just direct, immediate experience of them coming from their context.  And they hearing you in the same way.

I could have followed my empathy to find out compassionately what Frieda’s intense wanting in that situation was all about, especially its obsessive quality, but I didn’t choose to. I didn’t and still don’t see how we could have talked about it without getting overly defensive. And I easily convinced myself there wasn’t enough time. To boot, I was too caught up in my own general mishegas. Also: believing I am so limited in being able to deal with this kind of stuff when there is always so much of it.

Can you picture a way of life that makes getting to the mutual truths of such interpersonal experiences rich and constant? Getting to them in order to make life work better.

When we let go and let our empathy ride, we create extraordinary, unforgettable experiences. Sometimes they are more than we can handle. Sometimes unbearably awesome as excitement goes over the top and we feel ourselves losing our grip on the vital, grounding humdrum of livelihood. Just a taste of the sheer power of our empathy can trigger a tinge of terror as we correctly sense that it could change how we do everything. 

Maybe this is what is behind our relentless efforts to control what happens and what is wanted—personally and collectively. Behind our yearning for certitude, our desire to win and conquer, our haunting hunt for “security.” Maybe this is something left, right, and center share deeply.  Maybe exploring this phenomenon should be the ground for radically re-thinking politics and all the rest of life.

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