I went to a talk on empathy a few days ago. It was about the determinants of empathy and the things that result in it’s erosion or loss. It began with an image of a Cold Water Immersion experiment at Dachau and I should have realised, at that point, that my expectations of an uplifting ‘empathy will change the world session’ were wildly off key.
So I learnt a lot about how empathy is made up of cognitive and affective elements, and the groups of people who, scientifically, lack empathy. About how your early experiences, unsurprisingly, impact your ability to relate. About how hormones, genes and situation are just some of the things that inform where you sit on the empathy spectrum, and about how experiencing empathy is neurologically mapped and far less consistent than I imagined.
Any questions that I might have had about a lack of empathy were answered; those around why it’s so important and how we nurture empathy were not. And, whilst the association between a lack of empathy and cruelty were clear; I’m not quite sure that we arrived at a good understanding of exactly why empathy is so positive. This was probably outside the scope of the talk but it has got me thinking about why I jump at the word empathy, why I seize and cling onto it, and why it has felt, in the past few months, increasingly significant.
After the presentation, a member of the audience asked whether, as a society, we implicitly value a lack of empathy. Whether the qualities of ruthlessness and decisiveness so often seen in positions of power are rewarded more than the softer qualities of empathy.
The question surprised me, although it shouldn’t have. In my little corner of the world, empathy is celebrated. Loudly. It is neither woolly nor weak but is, instead, intrinsic to how we build strong relationships and how, as individuals and then as a society, we grow. It is challenging because it forces us to question our behaviour; and the flexibility it promises derives, not from indecision or fickleness, but an ability to move position and perspective. It matters to me because it has been so important in bridging the gap between myself and the world, and because it offers a way, I think, towards acceptance and out of loneliness that has the potential to change lives.
And so I have been trying to work out how to hold onto my conviction in the value empathy and also the idea that there are times where empathy can’t be the focus – and how, should this be the case, we navigate this precarious line. To see how empathy works on a macro, as well as a micro scale; or whether the personal nature of the feeling makes it impossible to translate. Whether an empathetic movement must, therefore, work like a ripple – or whether there are things that, on a larger scale, we are able to do? I kind of think there are – in terms of education and reducing barriers and sharing experience – but I wonder if this will reach far enough?