Radical Empathy

Snow_DayWe are enjoying the deep snow from our first real storm in two years. The next week or two will be uber warm, but today is lovely, and today, tonight, and tomorrow feature more snow!

I awoke this morning thinking about the vigilante mentality that seems to pervade our time. There are any number of folks out there who seem to relish the self-appointed role of purveyor of truth. They get to decide, totally arbitrarily, who others are without consulting the person they are defining. They also give themselves, and one another, permission to ruthlessly bully, distort, and harm any OTHER they choose.

Bullying is again a THING. Whether originating in the White House (a hugely apt, if problematic name), in the Immigration and Naturalization Service, or in homes and offices around the country and world, folks are on the attack. There are no rules of evidence or civility, and no care for the feelings, history, aspirations, or lived truths of others. There is only mean-spiritedness in the name of one person or group’s truth.

Truth is, of course, a problematic term. By now we have hopefully learned there are multiple truths competing for space in our social world. Some of these seem mutually incompatible, leading to multiple sites of contestation and erasure. Often, stories, and facts, are twisted and revised beyond recognition, all in the service of one truth or another and inevitably harming many Others.

There is also, out in the ethers of our culture, a subtle form of bullying that masquerades as an invitation to healing. This takes the form of the idea that if we only think “right”, visualize properly, or follow the advice of the latest health guru we will be fine. Usually these ideas come cloaked in good science and well documented spiritual truths, only to distort the underlying cohesion of the data they misuse. The end result is the ill person is blamed for their illness, and for their inability to overcome it; in the process they are exiled onto the island of the radical Other. (There is, one might add, much wealth to be gleaned from the suffering of the Other.)

All of this flies in the face of the “healer’s” task of holding a place of radical empathy for those who seek help. For generations healers have insisted that healing arises as we make space for the possible, and for the complexity inherent in wholeness. In the process, Otherness is challenged as all aspects of self are welcomed at the table. (There may well be energetic others who must be compassionately removed from the person, yet we also acknowledge their need and right to seek nurturance. We all need to eat!) Beyond this, we learn through practice that the healer and the patient are also one, and that Otherness is an illusion that, when it harms others, is also an illness.

Of course, the practice of radical empathy is very challenging, and I, for one, fail more often than I succeed. I hope the point is to come back to the stance of empathy, repeatedly, and set off again towards understanding and acceptance.

As I write I acknowledge that healers around the world agree we are, collectively, at a well-prophesied turning point: we can choose radical empathy for all living beings, or we can create a world of woe; the choice is ours. Perhaps living brings each of us repeatedly to this point, time and again offering the opportunity to move beyond the appearance of difference, even as we are encouraged to embrace diversity. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot: the fox and the squirrel are one, and we are both.

The first flakes of snow from our next storm are in the air. Below the deeply layered white, Spring is preparing her arrival. Soon enough the sap will rise in the maples, flowers will break through the now frozen ground, and the world will be filled of mating. Nature is not moral in the human sense, nor does Nature troll or bully. Here, as we approach the cusp between winter and spring, there is only creativity, procreativity, life, and death. There are no Others, save in the moment of defending territory. There is, instead, a profundity of co-evolution, of unknown and, often, unrecognized, connections, of mutual interdependence and need; we are literally both myriad and one.

When we pay attention, Nature may remind us that Otherness, rather than something absolute, is in the mind and eyes, of the beholder; it is just another thought passing through the night, easily banished by the warm light of radical caring and empathy.

4 thoughts on “Radical Empathy

  1. Here in the UK we have seen a huge rise in reported ‘hate crimes’ following our Brexit vote. No doubt the actual number is much higher, as so often these incidents are not reported. With the help of FB and CCTV, etc, there are a lot of the guilty people being identified and charged. You just wonder what goes through the minds of these people, and under whose influence they’ve been formed.

    1. Andy, here on he US there are more constraints on stopping hate speech. There is also more permission for hate acts, although that would be denied by most folks. If the current government gets its way, there will be even fewer safeguards. Scary times.

  2. Good to read, that you got some snow this year Michael 🙂
    I do also see much bad talking online, like some people don’t have any clue about, what empathy is at all.
    It is sad, but easy for weak people to act crazy behind a screen.
    I do still hope, that our world will become better this way.
    Enjoy your winter.

    1. Irene, I try to remember that overall things are better. Online is another universe where people are not held responsible for what they say, and where lying is easy. The end result is a cauldron of venom. I agree wit you that we could all do better.

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