Click here to see the video, The first of a series of roundtables around the topic of Empathy. Recorded July, 2013 at the Massachusetts Historical Society's Dowse Library.*
The speakers began by trying to define what empathy meant to each of them, which I would call the 'getting to know you' part of the discussion. Then came the question, what can cause empathy to happen? Is it something that we can learn and grow ourselves (as I believe) or does it only arise naturally, or both? The point was then made that empathy can and does arise naturally, but only if we share a culture** with the other person we're connecting to.
This concept rings very true for me. When I see another person and we do any number of cultural acts together (I'm thinking of simple things like shaking hands or holding open a door) then I can more easily step into their shoes. Let's say I take a trip someplace far away, and I see another mom towing her child around. No matter how different looking and dressing and talking she is, something about her is familiar, and I can feel close to her without even thinking about it.
So if shared culture and habits and behaviors can bring us together, why aren't I friends with everyone in my town? The group seemed to agree on one idea that keeps us apart. Fear.
I do agree with them that fear is an obstacle - and most people would agree, I think, that fear can hold us back. The idea here is that it actually prevents us from connecting with each other.
If I am afraid of you, it doesn't matter what cultural norms we share. The fear fills me up and can prevent me from seeing things from your point of view. I don't know why this is; perhaps it's because of our fight or flight instincts to survive. Perhaps it's because, like the Buddha's teachings say, that the strong emotion of fear takes up all the space in my mind that might otherwise be filled with compassion and empathy. I'm no longer at peace, and so I don't have any room left to see a life other than my own.
The rest of the talk was also great but I'll let you see that for yourself.
So what do you think? Does fear hold you back, is it keeping you from connecting to someone?
*Let's give some kudos to all of the people talking in this video (links to biographies):
Dr. Marco Iacoboni, Professor and Neurologist
Dr. Mary Hellen Immordino-Yang, Cognitive Neuroscientist and Professor
Dr. Robert Weller, Professor and Anthropologist
Dr. Adam Seligman, Professor of Sociology, Social Anthropology and Religion
Leslie Jamison, Author, PhD candidate at Yale University
Ben Doepke & the SEEK company (host)
** Here by "culture" I don't mean something intellectual. I'm talking about culture as behavior, I'm talking about how in some parts of the world looking someone in the eye is considered good and in other parts of the world it's considered bad. Anyone know more about sociology out there, and can help me to define culture more accurately, feel free to do so in the comments.