Center for Building a Culture of Empathy

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Interviews About Empathy
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2008-11-18 - Susan Griffin on Empathy


    Joe Brewer - Empathy
Joe Brewer talks about how empathy is the foundation of progressive values.

When we talk about progressive values, we are really talking about is how we care and why we care.  So I think the most important progressive value is empathy. By empathy I mean that we feel a strong connection with other people, and we put themselves in our shoes.  And when we do that, we feel responsibility to help end their suffering. 

So when people are treated unfairly, like with inequality ,we have a responsibility to do what we can collectively in our community to care for those people and provide for them, to be sure that they are given the opportunities that everyone deserves.  So I think when weíre talking about progressive values, weíre really talking about empathy and responsibility. 

Now we extend that and say ďWhat happens when I care about someone else, and I want them to have some kind of well-beingĒ.  What is going to be entailed in that?  Those values include fulfillment, and if you care about someone else and put yourself in their shoes, then youíre going to want them to have the same opportunities and pursue their dreams as you have.  So, youíre going to think about their fulfillment.

And your also going to think about basic levels of material wealth, which means moving into prosperity.  Because people who donít have the basic things they need to take care of themselves are going to suffer, and they are not going to seek their dreams.

And all that is really about freedom, which is another important value.  Each person needs to have freedom guaranteed to them, with opportunities to be able to pursue their dreams and goals.  As long as those freedoms they express donít impinging on the freedoms of others. 

And a corollary of that is that you need to have another kind of freedom, freedom from harm.  Freedom from people restricting upon or infringing upon your freedoms.  So we have to work together as a community to guarantee those things.

Now if we start extending those things out on a community level, then weíre going to get to other kind of values. They donít sound like normal values Ė values like the common good, the common wealth.  We invest in collectively what we each individually canít afford, so have to provide together.

Things like education, public infrastructure, highways, funding of scientific research and medicine.  The things that no one can provide for themselves, that are extensions of basic levels of progressive values.  So, when we start talking about progressive values, thereís a lot we can say.

Edwin:  The first thing you mentioned was empathy.  Can you talk about your own personal experience, how you developed that value?

Answer:  Well, I look at it from a perspective of what psychology teaches us.  My experience Ė I grew up in a small town in Missouri, in a place where there was a lot of poverty, and most people fell pretty much trapped where they were.  So I was immersed in a living condition of feeling trapped.


What I felt when I was around other people in that condition was I felt the same lack of opportunity they felt, and I resonated Ė their suffering became my suffering, because I saw in them the hardships that I experienced. 

So when I talk about empathy, I talk about it at a really concrete level with the people around you.  Itís the people I interact with directly on a daily basis.  When Iím around other people, as I get to know them, I care about them.  I want them to do well.  Theyíre my friends.  Theyíre my family. 

And so, when I look at their condition, I see that itís just an extension of my condition.  So, to put that in concrete terms, itís that when someone canít find work, they work really hard and canít find work that pays their living, and unable to get health care, I look at my own situation and see similarities. 

The trick is to look into the other to see yourself in them and them in you.  So when Iím talking about empathy, Iím really talking about the connection with other people.

Edwin:  Iím also looking for actual stories, some memory or story Ö

Answer:  Yeah, there are other kinds of empathy besides empathy for other people.  Iím a strong environmentalist, and I know that the experience that Iíve had, like today picking up trash, is like the experience Iíve had living in squalor.  And one example of living in squalor that resonates in me Ė like a few years ago I visited India and visited old Delphi, a place which has concrete streets and mud-filled streets.  And as walked down those streets, I would smell the refuse and garbage.  People would use the streets as a bathroom Ė there were no public bathrooms and public trashcans.

So, as I would walk along the street, I would be surrounded by garbage and human refuse.  And so the experience I had was of people not caring for their surroundings.  And that was a place where I felt empathy for the broader world in two ways.  One, I felt the sickness we are putting on the world by having garbage lying all around.  Then I felt the sickness of our communities that depend on a healthy environment in order to survive and be healthy ourselves.  So I felt a deep sense of connection with the broader world when I was surrounded by that squalor.




    Progressive Values? Loni Hancock - Empathy, Caring
Well, I think progressive values are all about forming a society in which every human being and every  child can live a fully realized life, regardless of the circumstances of their parents.

You know, I grew up in a family that talked about those values a very great deal, and also, a family where empathy was talked about.  I think that empathy, the ability to understand how other people feel, particularly, the disrespected or physically hurt, or hungry, is the way we develop.

Edwin:  Can you think of any incidents, something that happened where you learned that lesson about empathy?

The only thing that comes to mind is crying the first time I went to the zoo.  My father explained to me that he thought they were really happy there, because they didnít do anything but sleep and eat.  But I donít think so, they looked to me like they were pacing.  Oh, just sitting and crying and refusing to go into the house that had little cages, and my father, who was happy after being with his daughter, was now turning sour and trying to explain to me why he thought it was okay.  But it just didnít feel okay. 

[speech at rally]  If we care about the quality of life of the human beings who live in the congressional district, who live in our state, we must stop this war.  If we care about our souls, we must stop this war.  If we care about the constitution of the United States, to maintain a vital democracy so that the people can be heard and make the changes that they need, we must stop this war.  So, thank you all for being here, and together, we will stop this war.





Empathy Healthcare Cafe - Overview








Progressive Values? Katie McCall - Equality, Empathy, Caring