Empathy: A Way Forward to Revolution.
Readers of this blog are now probably aware that a regular theme is the idea of being connected. In my work as a psychologist I have been struck by the problem of disconnection for people who have depression and anxiety. Depression is
a disconnection from self and others. Anxiety, on the other hand, is an over-connection to fear resulting in a disconnection from self and reality which is why anxiety is so often a precursor to depression.
Guardian Weekly columnist, George Monboit, recently took up one of his pet themes in an article on consumerism. He argued that our quest for more consumables leads us to a loss of attachment to our communities and our sense of meaning and purpose, leaving us in an existential void.
I am sympathetic to Monboit’s arguments: both to the dangers of consumerism and to his anxiety about what this means to our individual psyches. I wonder about the implications for the future of the human race as we consume our way toward
In his article, Monboit points out that we are confronted with bizarre contradictions: the unveiling of a 280 meter in length superyacht by an Austrian company (isn’t Austria landlocked?!) which has 11 decks, three helipads, theatres, concert halls, restaurants, a ski slope and electric cars that ferry passengers from one activity to the other; and the fact that 1% of the world’s population owns 48% of the world’s wealth.
How does this work? How can it work for our future?
Socially we are not progressing; we are regressing. We are regressing to a feudal state which will be worse than medieval times because our population has exploded beyond sustainability (China is confronted by potential food shortages at a time of massive growth and consumerism) and a degraded environment.
Because we have become detached spiritually (i.e. from ourselves and our environment, including community) we are slowly losing the ability to empathise. Empathy is essentially the ability to step into someone else’s shoes and allow our
imagination to consider the experience of that person. George Orwell’s book, Down and Out in London and Paris, is an example of someone literally doing this. Orwell tramped with the tramps and washed dishes in restaurants in order to try to understand what it was like to be in these positions. This is an example of what Roman Krznaric calls an “extreme sport of experiential empathy”.
Roman Krznaric argues that we are about to enter the Age of Empathy. Personally I think it will be a slow entry, but Krznaric gives me hope. His argument, I think, is that individualism will be hard to sustain. We have survived so far because of our capacity to empathise. It was not through individualism but through communalism that Homo Sapiens has come this far. I recall this point being made in my early history lessons: early Man survived by forming groups to hunt, to protect themselves from other groups and from predators.
Krznaric argues that we must move from Introspection to Outrospection. Outrospection leads to empathy and when we are empathic, we are capable of a massive revolution in human relationships. If the focus shifts from introspection which asks the questions “What about me?” or more dangerously, “What’s in it for me?” we can begin to understand “the other” better; we can start having conversations with people different from ourselves and begin to realise that, regardless of race, culture, religion or country, we are affected by the same things. We begin to realise that we have the same concerns about the welfare of our families, that we want to be as comfortable as possible (and that means we must be aware of other people’s comfort), that we are afraid of similar things, that we laugh at similar things – and the list goes on.
Socrates said something to the effect that to live a good life, we must know ourselves. I believe that when we connect with what we truly value and believe in and start measuring our lives accordingly, we begin to understand ourselves and others better. When that happens, we become curious about others and the world around us. Gandhi suggested that a trick to ensure ethical action was to be aware of the niggle of discomfort about what you are thinking of doing, then imagine the face of the poorest or most disadvantaged person you know and ask yourself: Is what I am about to do going to help this person in any way?
Roman Krznaric has outlined six habits of empathy in his book A Handbook for Revolution. They are:
• Cultivate curiosity about strangers.
• Challenge prejudices and discover commonalities.
• Get into extreme sport of experiential empathy.
• Practice the art of conversation.
• Inspire mass action and social change.
• Develop an ambitious imagination.
Each of these lead naturally to another. For example the cultivation of curiosity about a stranger will allow you to participate in the extreme sport of experiential empathy as Orwell did. In practicing the art of conversation with strangers, one can challenge one’s prejudices and realise that common interests and concerns are shared. All of the above habits can help what seems to me to be the most important: the development of ambitious imagination; the imagination that stretches over continents and oceans to those cultures and people we are removed from. When we are able to do this, we might be able to imagine the effects of our consumerism and its costs to the environment, our lives and the lives of others.