This week the world’s first Empathy Museum is opening in London. I have to admit that when I first learned of this, I had to wonder. Do we need to put empathy in a museum to preserve it? Like an ancient artifact, is empathy so rare that we have to start visiting it in a museum?
Well, no. Obviously, I have turned this around. The international touring exhibition has been designed and created by Roman Krznaric to help us to “appreciate other people’s viewpoints, experiences and feelings.” He and his team of collaborators want people to step into the shoes of other people – literally. One of the exhibits invites you to enter a shop where a sales assistant will help you select a pair of shoes to wear, for example, the sandals of a political refugee or shoes belonging to an Etonian banker.
There is also a Human Library where, instead of a book, you can borrow a person to chat with – someone whose life experience is foreign to your own, like a Sikh teenager, homosexual father, off-duty soldier or mental health nurse. Afterwards move to the Labour Behind the Label exhibit where you will sit down amongst rows of sewing machines alongside a team of former sweatshop factory workers from Vietnam. They will teach you how to make a shirt under the working conditions of your favorite fashion label. At the end, you will be paid the equivalent amount that a garment factory worker in a developing country receives for her labor.
Krznaric calls upon us to develop the art of empathy through these immersion exercises. His goal is to ultimately start a “Revolution of Human Relationship.” Scientific studies are beginning to explore the question: Is there a way to teach empathy? My question is this: Can we teach not only empathy for those around us with whom we interact daily, but also global empathy? Are we able to truly empathize with people living far beyond our local sphere?
What is Empathy?
Empathy occurs when we seek to see things from the experiential point of view of another. When we experience empathic feelings, we realize that the other’s point of view is rationally consistent from his or her perspective, however disjointed it may appear from ours. Empathy does not mean we must agree or have positive feelings about the other’s point of view. It’s about using our good will to understand another, whether we agree with them or not. As Assagioli states:
“Regardless of one’s intellectual understanding, genuine existential understanding is not possible without empathy. It can be achieved by actively arousing, or letting ourselves be pervaded by, an absorbing interest in the person one wills to understand.”
Empathy starts with us realizing the thoughts and feelings of others. We then try to picture what their situation might be and evoke their possible reactions to that situation.
Empathy as a Sphere of Shared Resonance
I am all for visiting an Empathy Museum to help us develop this ability. However, we also have the potential to learn empathic behavior whenever we receive empathy from another. Empathy is energy radiating in space and time, and this energy is resonant, touching all who experience it. Like a plucked violin string that starts a nearby violin string to also vibrate and sing, empathy alters every sentient being involved. In this way, through empathic relationships, we become more fully human ourselves and gain insight into the mystery of the human condition, from every virtue to any failure.
We cannot have a full understanding of others when we have never experienced unconditional understanding ourselves. As the moral maxim says: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In a deep way, we cannot extend empathy to others until we have come to understand and empathize with our own personal human condition.
I suggest that the Empathy Museum also needs an exhibit where visitors might experience receiving empathy. Where you could go and tell your story and have someone try to understand you and where you are coming from. To quietly listen and just let you be.
Performing artist Marina Abramović seemed to do just this at the Museum of Modern Art gallery in New York. In 2012, for eight hours a day, she sat virtually motionless for three months and invited anyone to come and look into her eyes to have what she called “an energy dialogue” during which neither visitor or Abramović spoke nor moved.
Visitors streamed in and, one by one, occupied the chair opposite her. Together, both artist and visitor experienced extraordinarily moving encounters. Some wept; others laughed. Abramović’s “The Artist is Present” drew record crowds to the gallery and became one of the most famous and controversial pieces of performance art ever staged.
“I never saw so much pain in my life,” said Abramović. “It was shocking. How simple it was. My whole idea at MoMA was to give out unconditional love to every stranger, which I did. This experience really changed my life.”
Empathy as a Healing Practice
When I am working as a therapist, my utmost aim is to allow the person sitting in front of me to experience empathy – sometimes for the first time in their lives. This is my greatest, most beautiful, and self-fulfilling task. However, it can also be my most challenging. We often resist receiving empathy because of sudden disconcerting feelings of anger and/or sadness. While our beings might resonate within the empathic connection, at the same time the pain of our past brokenness is also awoken and revealed, leaving us feeling uncomfortable at best.
It’s as if the second violin string, once vibrating along with the first, realizes just how out of tune and dissonant it has been playing. The sounds is bitter sweet, while we long only for the sweet. This is what happened, I believe, for most of the visitors to Abramović’s installation. In my next blog, I will further explore the empathic journey of one client as she wrestled with her resistance to finally surrender and grow.
At the end of our time together, one client said to me, “I always knew I could come here, and you would be on my side.” This was her way of expressing thanks for the empathetic connection she felt between us. I had listened and tried not to judge. I held her emotions and thoughts and tried not push them away. I looked and, at times, tried to help her imagine another point of view.
My empathy did not mean that I coddled her every whim, ignored my own boundaries, or passively agreed to everything she said. Empathy is none of these things. It is a resonance between diverse people who are all allowed to be their authentic selves in relationship to each other.
Empathy is born our of the fullest possible understanding that people (ourselves included) “are as we are” in the here-and-now. And, at the same time, empathy requires us to continually know and hold, hope and envision the fullest potential of ourselves and each other in our life long journey towards our authentic selves and Joy.
The painting “Watermelon Shoes” courtesy of Meg Duguid.