Last month marked the closing of the Dewdney Players production of The Calendar Girls (Tim Firth). It was a whirlwind few-months of rehearsals leading into three weeks of packed houses and standing ovations. The experience was a brilliant one for all of us (cast, crew, directors, stagehands, and technicians) and the prospect of striking the set after the final performance was heartbreaking to say the least. I reluctantly let go of “Ruth Reynoldson”.
Theatre is a passion of mine. As audience member and actor, I have found theatre both entertaining and therapeutic. Stories that play out on stage provide a lens through which to view life, society and people a bit differently. Having roles in plays allows for even more introspection. By stepping into the shoes of a colorful character (like “Ruth”), I have had the opportunity to transform into someone whose world views were different than my own. I learned to empathize with that character.
What is empathy and why does it matter?
It may surprise you to know that the concept of empathy is a relatively new one. In her article in The Atlantic, Susan Lazoni provides a nice overview of the term’s 100 year old history. “Empathy” is a translation of the German word Einfühlung which means “feeling-in”. At the time the term was coined, it was defined as not only a “means to feel another person’s emotion…” but to “enliven an object, or to project one’s own imagined feelings onto the world.”
And who doesn’t appreciate the idea of empathy? It only makes sense that the better we relate to the plights of others, the more that we respond kindly, ethically, morally, respectfully to them. Nicholas Kristoff suggests, though, that we have slumped into an “empathy gap”; a place where we have lost our capacity to understand another’s troubles. Our cognitive ‘muscles’ have become a bit sluggish, so says Kristoff.
“Even though I do not look like you or act like you, nonetheless I am like you when it comes to the capacity for suffering, and so I deserve to be treated the same as you…” – Denise Cummins, 2013.
The more empathy, the better. It’s a no-brainer, right?
Yale professor Paul Bloom views empathy a bit differently. He qualifies empathy as “narrow-minded, parochial, and innumerate”. Oooh. Ouch. Now, before we all get up in Bloom’s grill over this, it might be best to qualify his perspective a bit more. Make no mistake, Bloom does value the importance of empathy as part of human-to-human interaction and a basis for mutual understanding. But Bloom states that empathy, in practice, can often be divisive. Especially when empathy is muddied by emotional bias and when that emotional bias leads to bad social policy.
So, maybe society’s struggle is less about an ‘empathy gap’ but, rather, with ‘misplaced empathy’. We need to ask ourselves: Are we unduly influenced by our tribes and by our cognitive biases? (Likely, see Kahan 2012) Are we stuck in echo chambers where we are completely unaware that our empathies may be misplaced? (Yes, and our ‘fast information nation‘ only serves to exacerbate the problem).
I am not advocating for the abandonment of empathy through these musings. Not at all. Rather, I see this as more of a call-to-action for us to better understand how our emotions, biases and behaviours drive our actions. A combination of empathy, self-awareness, AND reason seem to be in order here (see Cummins and Cummins 2013 and Konnikova 2012).
“Feeling in”: What can we learn about empathy from the acting profession
Our first (very human) reaction is to dismiss people, things and messages that run counter to our world views or way of thinking. We are naturally protective of our personal beliefs. We automatically seek out information that informs, supports and validates those beliefs.
Kevin deLaplante hosts a terrific podcast with an episode entitled “What Critical Thinkers and Communicators can Learn from the Performing Arts”. In order to carry out their craft, actors need to understand the background, the mindset, the limitations and the possibilities of the character they are to portray. They need to slip into that role with authenticity. They need to “be” the character and “live” the story through eyes that are often very different from their own.
We spend time having conversations with others about health, food and food production, science, politics, religion and a range of other (often controversial) topics. We constantly struggle to understand positions that are diametrically opposed to our own because that is part of the age-old human condition. In order to overcome this, we need to cultivate communication skills that force us to challenge our personal biases. Take a cue from performers: “[They] cultivate the ability to empty themselves; to forget who they are and totally and completely become someone else.” (Kevin deLaplante)
This is hard work. And having conversations about controversial topics is hard work. Here are a few things to think about (adapted from deLaplante) as we move forward in those conversations:
- Acknowledge the importance of background and subject matter knowledge
- Understand the arguments of both the defenders and the skeptics
- Be willing to put yourself in another’s headspace and be prepared to dwell in that space for a while
- Understand how the human animal processes information (cognitive biases and intellectual habits)
- Identify beliefs, values and assumptions that drive opinions and behaviors (including your own)
- Commit to reconstructing the reasoning that has led to deeply held convictions/beliefs (including your own)
- Remember, it’s a conversation, not a conversion
- Value truth, understanding, the relationship and the person above any ‘conversational wins’
As Iida Ruishalme so artfully asks and answers in her article here:
“…[W]ho do you think might be more effective … someone who is judgemental, appealing to science, or someone he or she perceives as a friend, who is tolerant of his or her viewpoint, who wishes to understand? I don’t know if I could be that understanding friend. But I know I would like to be.”
I aspire to be that kind of friend and conversationalist, too.
Filling and “Feeling in” those shoes
There is nothing like donning the sensible footwear, a conservative cardigan and the thoughts and emotions of a story’s character. In the world of theatre, exercising empathy is an important process in understanding and adopting a character’s identity and motivation. It’s about building, animating and authenticating the story.
“Calendar Girl” Ruth Reynoldson is a most interesting character, one that I have grown to love since I was given the role this past June. Over the months, I built a relationship with Ruth. Through her eyes, I learned more about the other characters in the play and I have even learned a little bit more about me.
“Walk a mile…” they say ’cause everyone has a story. Understanding the whole story – the ‘bigger picture’ – takes time, commitment, empathy, critical thought and a lot of self-awareness. Mind you, the whole (story) is even greater than the sum of its parts. So, investing in that kind of conversation is worth the effort.
Thanks to Jenny Dewey Rohrich for allowing me to include her beautiful sunflower photo on this blog post.
- Bloom, Paul. (2013). “The Baby in the Well: the case against empathy.” The New Yorker. May 20.
- Cummins, D. and R. Cummins. (2013). “Why Paul Bloom is Wrong About Empathy and Morality.” Psychology Today. October 20.
- deLaplante, Kevin. (2010). “What Critical Thinkers and Communicators can Learn from the Performing Arts.” Critical Thinker Academy Podcast. December 2.
- Kahan, Dan. (2012). “Why are we Poles Apart on Climate Change?” Nature. Volume 488. August 16.
- Konnikova, Maria. (2012). “The Empathy Machine.” The New Yorker. November 14.
- Kornhaber, Spencer. (2015) “Empathy: Overrated?” The Atlantic. July 3.
- Kristoff, Nicholas. (2015). “Where’s the Empathy?” New York Times. January 24.
- Lanzoni, Susan. (2015). “A Short History of Empathy.” The Atlantic. October 15.
- Ruishalme, Iida. (2015). “Engineering debates on GMOs: How to change minds when emotions overrule science.” Genetic Literacy Project. August 31.