In recent weeks a good deal of my time has been spent engaged in conversations with members of our community who are suffering and in pain. It may be parents with concerns about their child’s relationships with other children. Or faculty members struggling in their communication with colleagues. Or students experiencing a sense of disconnect and isolation from their peers. In all of these instances I, and the others around the table, are challenged to truly understand the feelings and experiences of someone else. This is perhaps the hardest work we do in our community, a place where human relationships are highly valued and inherently fragile.
I will be honest. I am troubled, and am wrestling with how it seems that emotions surge and patience wanes so quickly, my own included. The very values we strive to instill in our children – tolerance, compassion and forgiveness – are often the first we let go of in our own moments of discomfort and suffering.
Last evening I joined faculty and parents on the Three Cedars campus for a conversation titled, “The Healthy Social Life: Empathy, Sympathy and Antipathy in our Modern World.” We considered questions such as
- How does experiencing our reflection through community help, hinder, or color our awakening to self-awareness?
- What do we learn about ourselves through others?
- What roles do we play for each other in this process, such as the Bully, the Victim, the Bystander, or the Ally?
It was a rich conversation that left me with more questions than answers. Steiner believed that over the course time, with the total change of human consciousness, mankind will attain the condition of total compassion. The human experience will become one where we will not be able to see the suffering of another person without experiencing it exactly as if it were our own. Developing the capacity for empathy is an important step in this evolutionary journey.
As we discussed last night, empathy is not just a feeling. It is not simply stepping into someone else’s shoes, as the saying goes. To be empathetic asks us to essentially empty ourselves in order to be present with others. In his book Loving the Stranger: Studies in Adolescence, Empathy and the Human Heart, Michael Luxford describes Steiner’s concept of empathy as “a new power, a potential for holding still this eternal oscillation between sympathy and antipathy in the same way that we can hold our breath; and in this deed of holding still, a space – a gateway – is opened towards the other person and his experience.“
Clearly creating this space for empathy is a huge undertaking. We are continually pulled between the forces of antipathy (distancing) and sympathy (going toward). Muddying the waters is our human tendency to draw on our personal childhood experiences to interpret and make sense of the actions and feelings of others. We all have those trigger moments, when our reaction to a situation bursts forth from a place deep within us, sometimes both out of proportion and out of character. This is where that mirror of the community reflection and our striving toward Luxford’s deed of “holding still” are critical.
I’d like to offer that our calling as individuals and as a community is threefold. First, to gain greater awareness of those moments when we are struggling to acknowledge and understand another’s pain. Second, to be open to the reflection of our words and actions that others offer. And finally, to have compassion for both others and ourselves as we deepen our commitment to doing the very hard work that drew us to this community in the first place. The learning opportunity for our children to witness this striving – and our occasional failing – is powerful.
Published in the Connection from 2.5.16