A Little Empathy Would Go A Long Way

Artwork by Fares Cachoux – Woman holding Syria on her back (Cartoon Gallery, Dubai)

I attended a Dubai Slam Poetry session few days ago and one of the talented young poets, Syrian Sarah Tamimi, told the story of war through a daughter’s promise to her departed mother: ‘Don’t look back’… What I understood from Sarah’s tearful performance which content evoked my own experience in Lebanon’s physical war zone in the 1980s, is not the importance of letting go of the past, but of not letting the pain of the past steal the blessings of today and the promise of tomorrow. Palestinian-Canadian Dr. Nadia Wardeh and I had a serious conversation following the session about the power of memory and the importance of cultural resistance, and how we were both moved by Sarah’s words. ‘Empathy’ (al ta’atuf) came to my mind.

Empathy is usually defined as the ability to sense other people’s emotions (affective empathy) and to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling (cognitive empathy). Empathetic individuals are more likely to help others in need, even when doing so cuts against their self-interest. Empathy definitely fights inequality, reduces prejudice and racism, encourages people to reach out and help others who are not necessarily in their social group, and boosts positive human relations. Empathy is good for the office – managers who demonstrate empathy have better performing employees who also report greater happiness. It is good for professionals in education, health and social care. Some scholars argue that there is a genetic basis to empathy, while others suggest that people can enhance or restrict their natural empathic abilities. Empathy is therefore a culture in itself that is – or not – nurtured. Many religious and philosophical traditions have favored empathy as key to moral thought, conduct, or motivation. However, being religious does not guarantee being empathetic.

Following up on our conversation the next morning, I wondered about the flood story in the Bible, and the numerous interpretations found in Jewish and Christian traditions. Contrary to Noah’s portrayal in the 2014 American biblical epic film directed by Darren Aronofsky, a figure with different characteristics is depicted in the sacred scriptures, the figure of an absentee from the moment God speaks to him until he leaves the ark and steps on to dry land. Noah expresses no shock or horror at the idea of the mass destruction, nor does he plead with God to think again. Was Noah’s silence the sign of lack of empathy? But the story continues with Noah having to feed the animals in the ark for an entire year without sleep. Noah learns how to know and care for others. According to Scottish Torah scholar Dr. Avivah Gottlieb, “the ark becomes a crucible in which a new type of sensibility is nurtured. The ark is to be a laboratory of kindness” (The Genesis of Desire). Zomberg finds a drama about ‘civilizations’ in the flood story: the real crisis of human beings is that “they have become so open that they are closed to one another”.

Zomberg’s theory reminds me of Samuel Huntington’s – The Clash of Civilizations. For Huntington, the more the ‘Western’ and ‘Islamic’ civilizations are open to one another, the more they will realize their differences thus will clash. Openness definitely carries with it the risk of conflict, but it paves the way for making the unfamiliar familiar, for mutual respect, dialogue and conviviality. Empathy requires openness but it should be coupled with paying attention. Psychiatrist Ronald David Laing explains the dilemma facing many individuals who are not able to develop empathy because they fail to notice others: “The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change; until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.” In simpler words, to have empathy, I have to be able to see. To have empathy for you, I have to be able to see you.

I saw Sarah, and I could see in her poem the daughter running and her mother screaming: ‘Don’t look back!’ I saw refugees in camps and in the streets of Beirut. I saw friends and family members die because of the war in Lebanon, in Syria, Palestine and Iraq. Is seeing/noticing the key? We are bombarded with scenes of suffering and horrible deaths night and day on all media channels. Does this continuous reminder contribute to a culture of empathy or does it push individuals to eliminate the more humane elements in them as a means of protection, of survival? Seeing/noticing could also block one’s empathy and therefore create an affective social distance. Seeing too much could provoke fatigue – ‘empathy fatigue’ -, a sense of lack of power to affect change when we are faced with unrelenting bad news.

To have empathy for you, I have to become more mindful of what I see/notice, I have to learn to feel with and feel into, and not be afraid of feeling beyond my local narrow borders, beyond my comfort zone. I have to learn to understand. I have to learn to beat the ’empathy fatigue’. Seeing Sarah and the Syrian war through Sarah’s words, feeling Sarah and her characters’ pain, merging our emotions, and understanding Sarah and refugees who lost their loved ones, their homes, their past, and are hanging on the thin strings of life in order not to lose their future. As Albert Einstein explains it in Mathematical Circles: “A human being is a part of the whole, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space.  He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.  This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us.  Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.  Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security”.

Truly, a little empathy would go a long way…

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