When I was a kid, I used to hate seeing people eat on their own in restaurants. I used to get that stomach sick feeling of loneliness or a wave of sadness, like when you are moved by a song. The same thing happened if I saw someone hurt or I overheard someone say something that would have hurt me.
Projection’s a blurry line. As blurry as the line between ourselves and others can sometimes be.
Over the years, I learnt that sometimes I’d pre-empted the emotion (eating alone can be a chosen treat rather than indicative of isolation); and I also learnt to look the other way. If it hurts, don’t imagine it. Stop the sponge effect and make the walls double strong.
I have been thinking about this because I was listening to a Ted talk on
empathy yesterday. I’ve thought a lot about empathetic conversations and how empathy comes through sharing; very little about jumping into other people’s shoes. This seems to require an imaginative leap that is not so present in resonance. It is an empathy which is not based on the recognition of shared experiences (I relate because I have felt the same), but in a movement into a different space. Maybe it is akin to the steps to the left that I have written about before – only in an imaginative sense.
Going back to those sharp memories of feeling other’s (real or imagined) pain that I experienced in my childhood has raised some interesting questions for me about how we do this. Imagination is subjective and not the same as reality so how do we really know what another feels? Plus, there is a courage involved in being prepared to step fully into a position that is uncomfortable or unknown.
Sam Richards is talking about empathy from the perspective of a sociologist. His experiment, in his own words, is “radical”; but his message has made me pause –
He says: “It all begins with empathy”.
He also says : “Step outside or your tiny little world….step inside of the tiny little world of someone else. And then do it again. And do it again. And do it again. And suddenly all these tiny little worlds come together in this complex web and they build a big complex world and suddenly, without realising it, you’re seeing the world differently. Everything has changed….”
In my writing – and in my life – I have always been careful to not generalise or assume or project. I have been tunnel-vision stuck on only thinking about what I have felt, because that is all I can truly know. My wariness to stand in another person’s shoes has come from an understanding of what it feels like to have your experiences negated or your voice overpowered by the perception of someone else –
only I have, I think, gone a step too far.
I realised, as I was writing this, that empathy and empathetic leaps are not about standing on another person’s toes – but maybe just about the attempt to stand in a different space.