Four years ago, I was in a local coffee shop taking some time for myself and reading. I used to do this whenever I could – take myself out and go and read or write somewhere where I could stretch out a coffee or cup of tea. On this occasion, I was at the back of the café reading Roman Krznaric’s The Wonderbox, and had come to his chapter on empathy.
‘There is a crack, a crack, in everything
That’s how the light gets in.’ – Leonard Cohen, Anthem.
I’d just been part of a community that had imploded for one reason or another, and was dealing with some complicated emotions, some paranoia, burnout, and shattered boundaries. The uncomplicated act of going out, taking the time for myself, was something I needed to give myself space, to find my way back to myself again. It’s hard for me to write anything about this time, because anything related to it can be triggering. If I think about it too much, it takes me down a spiral of thoughts that threatens to tilt everything again.
‘Some people think only intellect counts: knowing how to solve problems, knowing how to get by, knowing how to identify an advantage and seize it. But the functions of intellect are insufficient without courage, love, friendship, compassion, and empathy.’ – Dean Koontz.
The chapter on empathy was perfect for me at the time. It was all about how we can exercise our empathy to try and understand the lives of other people. How we can find common understanding even if we believe in completely different things, or live different lives. I wasn’t ready at that point to think too much about other people, needing to fix my own boundaries and understand what was too much for me. But it gave me a measure of healing when I kept wondering if I could have done anything to change what happened. It helped me to see that I did what I thought was right at the time, that I was exercising empathy. That I followed my intuition and tried to use empathy to guide my actions, even if my boundaries were messy.
‘The future of empathy lies not just in the choices we make as individuals to transform our own lives. If we aspire for empathy to fulfil its revolutionary potential as a force for social change, we must generate a deep cultural shift so that looking at the world through other people’s eyes becomes as common as looking both ways when we cross the road. This shift is already under way thanks to the third wave of empathy and the activists behind it.’ – Roman Krznaric, Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution.
Isn’t this what we try to do? Engaging in communities, activism, and friendships, we try our hardest to use empathy to guide us, to understand other people, to hopefully listen to them and let them tell us what they need. And empathy for ourselves is important too, when we are all too human and trying to do our best in a world that, in turns, seems messier than ever, and yet still hopeful. Even if you’re engaged in activism, community work, or just making art to give some joy to the world, understanding our own boundaries helps us to avoid burnout, engage in self-care, and in turn, means we will be able to keep doing our thing.
Even if we are struggling with our own lives, our own mental health or inequalities, empathy costs nothing. We may not always be able to engage in direct actions and activism, but that’s not to say that we can’t be kind, be a good friend, be present in the lives of those around us. Kindness ripples, the love we give ripples further than we might think. It’s so important to understand this when at times we feel helpless to stop the tide of hatred and prejudice out in the world. Every person we smile at, every person we help and are kind to, may have a better day and feel more human because of it. And we need more humanity.
‘Empathy is, in fact, an ideal that has the power both to transform our own lives and to bring about fundamental social change. Empathy can create a revolution. Not one of those old-fashioned revolutions based on new laws, institutions or governments, but something much more radical: a revolution of human relationships.’ – Roman Krznaric, Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution.
Inspired by Grayson Queen’s Somethingist Prompt ‘Something damaged’ (very loosely!).