Empathy and selflessness

In the previous blog, I wrote that empathy, awareness and imagination – embedded in relationships with helpful others – are the building blocks of hope and meaning. Over the next few weeks, I will write about concepts such as empathy, awareness, imagination and hope.

Empathy is all about understanding the deepest needs of the world, and how it impacts human beings. It requires us to connect with our fellow human beings. Researcher, Brené Brown defines spirituality as the deeply held belief that we are inextricably connected by something greater than us, love and compassion. She adds that this connection cannot be severed, but it can be forgotten.

Why do I forget that I am connected to every Syrian refugee, to the Italian family mourning the death of the three year old child in the recent floods, and to the young man on the street corner in Midrand or Oudtshoorn? One possible answer is thinking. Thinking responds to the experience of pain – not their pain but mine. Thinking opens the possibility of finding reasons to distance me from the other.

The confrontation with the need of others is also a confrontation with my own “core woundedness.” I supress my woundedness because I am afraid to face my vulnerability or limits or loneliness, dependence etc. I tell myself that pain is not good, and therefore it is acceptable (and reasonable) to keep my distance, which is to forget the inextricable connection of love and compassion.

Roman Catholic priest Henri Nouwen talked about “displacement” and “togetherness.” Displacement is the conscious recognition of our woundedness that brings us to deeper solidarity with the pain of others. Togetherness, he writes, can bring me to a place where I can recognise the sameness of all human beings. This recognition is the beginning of empathy. The true character of awareness is not to ignore your own needs and wants but to face your fears and affirm the connection between you and those who long for love.

Sources: Brene Brown’s sermon at the Washington Natiional Cathedral on January 21, 2018, can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ndP1XDskXHY; Core woundedness is a concept used by Svannah Steinberg from Star Leadership in South Africa; The idea of displacement and sameness comes from Nouwen’s book Compassion, published by Darton, Longman and Todd of London. It was co-written with Donald P McNeil and Douglas A Morrison.

 

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