Monday, April 14, 2008

The ability to embrace empathy

Things happened lately on the Olympic Torch relay, and the triggered protests around the world is bothering me a lot, especially the respond from the Chinese community abroad. The heating up angry feeling, hatred towards Tibetans is not at all a thoughtful reaction to the current situation.

It has also been a mystery for me for quite a while, why some people are so passionate about far away countries that has little to do with their day to day life? Why does Darfur matter to one single person living in the west? Why do they stand up to talk for Tibetans? Where was this passion originated from? This has nothing to do with the government level foreign aids programs, since there was no organization involved.

I was touched by a recent news about London Marathon, A father was running for his daughter, a lady ran for her husband, since the latter both died of cancer. They ran for the belief that they would raise the attention on cancer research that might benefit future patients. For Chinese, at least for me a while ago, I would really doubt: will this help? What is more common is the attitude that "let things drift if they do not affect one personally" (Shi Bu Guan Ji, Gao Gao Gua Qi). At least, I agree that it is not a positive attitude in dealing with problems in the society.

We tried to dig out some reasons for the emotion, and I surprisingly stumped upon the feeling of empathy.
It is all about the basic human feelings: empathy.

Empathy is one's ability to recognize, perceive and directly feel the emotion of another person. As the states of mind, beliefs, and desires of others are intertwined with their emotions, one with empathy for another may often be able to more effectively divine another's modes of thought and mood. Empathy is often characterized as the ability to "put oneself into another's shoes".

By the age of 2, children normally begin to display the fundamental behaviors of empathy by having an emotional response that corresponds with another person. Empathy is the most valuable thing in today's society. MOST of people's basic feelings today includes four things: Love, Hate, Apathy and Empathy. Here is a short brief introduction about empathy that I like:

Empathy is the acceptance that all humans should feel for one another. Empathy is the emotion that makes you cry when you see a stranger get hurt. Empathy is understanding without scrutiny or persecution. Empathy for other human beings is pure. Some would scrutinize empathy and say that it is just produced by a cheap self-interest, i.e. "I sure wouldn't want that to happen to me". This is a misunderstanding of a basic principle of empathy. Perhaps it is driven by self-interest but maybe that's the point. It doesn't matter what drives people to Empathize with one another but as long as they do people will always get along.

Empathy is the level we all relate on as human beings. It should be embraced above Love (the undefinable would-be-solution to all our problems), Hate (the all-too-easily definable pointless abuse of fellow humans) or Apathy (the nihilistic lack of common decency.) Empathy is understanding.

Empathy is the feeling that we all feel but sometimes have no name for. When you're sick and you realize how terrible it is to feel that way and for a brief second think to yourself "How horrible it must have been for everyone else who has ever gone through this".

It means far more to relate to a stranger than to die for "love" which probably caused more confusion and hardship in life then any true caring.

It means more to understand a person who you may not like than to "hate" a person you don't understand.

It means more to create bonds between humans than to permanently sever them with the trend known as apathy.
The conflicts in the world is only possible to be resolved if people can turn their empathy into action. This reminds me of the most striking sentences written on the Boston holocaust monument (a poem attributed to Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) about the inactivity of German following the Nazi rise to power and the purging of their chosen targets, group after group.):
They came first for the Communists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me,
and by that time no one was left to speak up.
What is the most surprising to me, in Chinese translation of these empathy and sympathy, there are no differences. I guess this might make Chinese people harder to understand the difference between empathy and sympathy. It is not about feeling sorry for others, but more an effort to put yourself in other's situation to understand their feeling, and feel what they must be going through. True compassion comes from a place of empathy, not sympathy. In fact, most people don’t want our sympathy. They don’t want us to feel sorry for them, they want us to have compassion and empathy for them. It is different in a way:

Sympathy is, "I'm sorry for your pain."
Empathy is, "I understand how you feel."

Empathy implies a breakdown of the barriers that separate two people. Empathy is when you allow yourself to become another person. The only way you can do that is to care enough about them that you allow empathy to happen. You must be willing to surrender to the dissolution or obliteration of the boundaries separating the two of you.

What lacks in the Chinese culture is the idea of Empathy. Human beings are interdependent.
what if later things happens to ourselves? Everyone needs support. I hope things won't happen till the stage that,
Then they came for me,
and by that time no one was left to speak up.
In the case of Tibet, Chinese people need to embrace empathy as the first step, same is true to Tibetans. It is the first step to true peace and harmony. Try to think assuming you are one of them, understand their culture and their reasoning of their behaviors. If this world we still believe in that conflicts are possible to be resolved, we better be more empathy than apathy.

Picture is from here.