building the empathy muscle

graffiti from Jerusalem: black spray-painted words, "We NEED Peace"Good morning, you and you and you. How is the morning singing where you are? Here it’s the Amtrak whistling through Jack London Square, the rush of cars moving toward rush hour, my neighbor warming up their motorcycle, the long build of the teakettle’s steady hum as it comes to a boil. Just a few birds; the feeder’s empty, and so they’re shunning me until I get them more seed.

I’m resting in the comingle of this song this morning, letting it wash over me. Last night’s Write Whole workshop left me both full and emptied out; we wrote about fear (visit the link to hear Joy Harjo performing the poem we used as a prompt), and we wrote about apologizing for things that weren’t our fault. The writing was vivid, layered, complicated, strong, and the stories were painful and gorgeous and necessary. I carry these stories with me; they live in the space I occupy, they live along the skin of my forearms, they live in the cilia just inside my ears. I learn from these stories; I stretch and open; I ache and celebrate. Every one of us in the room during these writes, we have the opportunity to stretch, to experience another someone’s story.

Sometimes we feel mirrored when we listen to another writer’s words, and sometimes we hear about experiences that are completely different from ours. When we let that writer’s words wash through us, we can open ourselves to a profound empathy.

Empathy, you know, means the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. Means the capacity to

I recently read this article on the Talking Writing website: Is Fiction Empathy’s Best Hope? The author writes:

In a 2010 University of Michigan study, for instance, nearly 14,000 college students scored about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts 20 or 30 years ago. Many psychologists reacting to this study argued that empathy is in decline. For them, the real questions were how sharply and what will be the consequences. […] For me, fiction—reading and writing it—is the best antidote. Fiction allows me to enter another’s situation, to get a glimpse into that person’s mind and heart…The best fiction doesn’t desensitize readers to the needs of others. It encourages us to feel and imagine those needs.

Of course, it’s not just college students who are struggling with empathy. We are a country (if you’re in the USA) that has lived in a constant state of (distanced) war for over a decade. We are continually reminding us that we have enemies out there who want to kill us, and we have to take them out first. If we are able to empathize with those civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, and elsewhere around the world, then we are less able to take their lives, because we are able to understand that their lives have as much worth and meaning as our own. If our children grow up able to empathize with those around them, and with other children around the world, then they are less likely to want to volunteer for a military service that will require them to take the lives of other humans. It behooves those in power to mitigate our ability to empathize with others, thereby leaving us feeling more isolated, more in need of goods and services to fill what community what to offer us.
Now, the experience of reading a book or listening to someone read a poem can’t undo this isolation all by itself — we have to allow it in.Those of us who have experienced trauma know this experience of isolation, and many of us have had to either overdevelop our empathy muscle or allow it to atrophy. Many of were are encouraged to worry about our perpetrator’s (perpetrators’) feelings before our own, and were called selfish if we cried about what was being done to us. We were told not to worry about what was happening to our siblings or friends down the street — that’s none of your business. We got incredibly mixed messages about caring for the feelings of others. Some of us grow up devoted only to others, always putting ourselves last, until we burn out in a flaming ball of guilt. Some of us shut out the world, putting ourselves first because we were never put first, and we can’t trust anyone else to understand what we went through. These are powerful survival strategies, and they can serve us for a time. Eventually, though, we get lonely, and we need to relearn how to connect to others without also losing ourselves.
For many in these writing circles, the ones we need to empathize with first are the ones inside of us, the children who suffered, the self that has had to make difficult choices in order to survive.
A deep empathy that doesn’t deny our own self-ness can be profoundly de-isolating. Many of us experience empathy through reading: we can imagine ourselves in the shoes and lives of those characters — we wear them for the length of the short story or article or poem or novel, and we are changed (if we allow ourselves to be).
This can also happen in the writing workshops: we are gifted with different stories, a roomful of them–and though each story rises out of the shared experience of trauma, no individual’s life-history is the same as anyone else’s; even siblings would have different stories to share. Not only do we, when we write and read, have our stories deeply witnessed by others, we also get chip away at that awful isolation that trauma builds in us when we allow the stories of others lives to enter us. This is subtle and profound work, and I could not be more grateful to be a participant.The word “empathy” comes from the Greek word empatheia: em-, meaning ‘in,’ and pathos, meaning ‘feeling’. My dictionary says that the Greek is a translation of the German word Einfühlung (Ein: one; fühlung: feeling). What is your (or your character’s) relationship to empathy, to experiencing a oneness of feeling with someone else? Are there those you’re more comfortable empathizing with than others? What about empathizing with those selves you’ve been, those who made choices you might not make today? Can you give yourself ten or fifteen minutes with this writing today? Follow your writing wherever it seems to want you to go.Thank you for your generosity and spaciousness with others, and with the layers of you. Thank you for your good words.

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