The art of empathy

In The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit offers a brilliant discussion of empathy in the course of a discussion of leprosy, of the peculiar nature of the disease. Leprosy is a disease of the nerves. It

strangles nerves, kills off feeling, and what you cannot feel you cannot take care of: not the disease but the patient does the damage. You begin nicking, burning, bruising, abrading, and otherwise wearing out your fingers, toes, feet, hands, and then losing them.

Since “pain and sensation define the self”–since you understand your body’s physical limits to be that just beyond which you feel sensation–“what you cannot feel is not you.” You are alienated from a part of your own body. Pain, then, “serves a purpose. Without it you are in danger.”

Solnit cites Dr. Paul Brand for his pathbreaking work with leprosy patients in India. He taught them “to take care of the insensible, alienated limbs with the kindness with which they might tend someone else.” He taught them, in other words, to engage in empathy. Solint believes we might all learn this lesson:

Some empathy must be learned and then imagined, by perceiving the suffering of others and translating it into one’s own experience of suffering and thereby suffering a little with them. Empathy can be a story you tell yourself about what it must be like to be that other person; but its lack can also arrive from narrative, about why the sufferer deserved it, or why that person or those people have nothing to do with you. Whole societies can be taught to deaden feeling, to disassociate from their marginal and minority members, just as people can and do erase the humanity of those close to them.

In a new reality in which pent-up racial hatreds are being unleashed at frightening levels and astonishing rates, no human response is more important than empathy.

Making this point from another direction in a recent interview is Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns, her epic narrative of the Great Migration. Speaking with Krista Tippett for On Being, she turns to topic of police shootings, not to ask why they happen but to consider what happens next. What happens after the person is down? “Where is the threat once they are already near death?” Why can’t the officers engage in “even the basic human response to take the hand of someone whose life is slipping away from them and to comfort them”?

Empathy goes beyond “looking across at someone and feeling bad for them,” she continues.

Empathy means getting inside of them, and understanding their reality, and looking at their situation and saying not, “What would I do if I were in their position?” but, “What are they doing? Why are they doing what they’re doing from the perspective of what they have endured?” And that is an additional step. There are multiple steps that a person has to take to be really open to that.

We need artists to help us see beyond ourselves into the hearts of others. We need the arts to empower others to be seen. We particularly need cultural arts programming that puts the tools of artistic creation in the hands of our friends and neighbors whose futures are at stake, whether because of their nationality or their ethnicity or their sexuality or whatever way they might be “different.”

One project proposed for Chapel Hill and Carrboro in the spring promises just such engagement: Carter Hubbard’s Floraffiti project. For the past few years, anyone walking around downtown in the spring has noticed the emergence of words from mulched medians, coming up from seeds planted in winter. This year, Hubbard proposes to expand the project by partnering with The Poetry Project, founded and led by Josephus Thompson of Greensboro. Using the power of spoken word, he engages with youth to promote literacy as well as artistic expression and creative development. He will lead workshops with middle school students at Boomerang, a youth service and alternative to suspension program sponsored by the YMCA, and with participants in the Art Therapy Institute of North Carolina‘s peer support group.

The product of each poetry workshop will be a group poem, from which each participant will choose a word that’s significant to issues or experiences in their own life. That will be the word that they will plant. On the 2nd Friday Art Walk in April of 2017–optimal time for the seedlings to have sprouted–each participant will perform around their own word, inviting comments and conversation from passers-by.

Some of their stories may be hard to hear. But we would do well to attend to their pain, for “what you cannot feel you cannot take care of.”

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