Center for Building a Culture of Empathy

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Culture of Empathy Builder:  Michael Lerner


Michael Lerner on Building a Culture of Empathy
It's great to try to build a culture of empathy. I think part of doing that ought to be simultaneously to be articulating a politics of empathy, and that's what I'm doing with the Network of Spiritual Progressives and Tikkun Magazine.
 Author of The Left Hand of God: Healing America's Political and Spiritual Crisis.

Sub Conference: Interfaith


Michael Lerner on Building a Culture of Empathy

  • 0:00 Michael Lerner Introduction: from offices of Tikkun Magazine

  • What's your Life Story of learning about empathy?

    • Started with a consciousness of the Holocaust and destruction of my people

    • why do some people care about others and other people can kill?

    • I'm not in anything alone

    • I had empathy for people there.

    • Own experience of being a minority

    • Could empathize with African Americans

    • From early age had empathy for those who had been suffering or oppressed.

    • 2:40 From there it took a long time to have empathy for those who were oppressors

    • took considerable education to come to see that people acting in horrible ways are also people in pain

    • the hardest step

    • Started in my late 20's and been working on it since

    • been trying to  get progressives to see that those who don't side with us, as fellow human beings

  • You started empathizing with their pain?

    • The question I struggled with since I was 11 is how could Germans hate/murder others

    • there were 2 cultural explanations

      • 1. Germans are evil

        • idea didn't fit with Judaism - people couldn't be born evil

        • Grandfather had great respect for Germany in 1920

      • 2.  Somehow Evil had descended on Germany

    • 6:00 - got into psychology to understand evil

    • Studied time of Nazi

      • Wilhelm Reich and sexual suppression

        • didn't make sense

      • Herbert Marcuse

    • Why is this still the case?

      • got Phd. in Psychology

      • did 10 yr. study of American society

      • National Institute of Mental Health

      • What made Americans embrace Conservativism?

    • The left said

      • Americans are stupid, sexist, homophobic, etc

      • 11:40 My studies showed it was because the Right spoke to a hunger for meaning

        • for a more caring society

        • people are terrified the way family and friendship was falling apart

        • the depravation of love and caring.

      • For the left-- it's the economy stupid

        • Their interest is broader

        • left still doesn't get that

      • 13:50 since found that everyone has that need

      • doesn't mean they don't have needs for material, sexual, food, etc

      • equally significant is love and meaning

      • the capitalist world view denies that

      • capitalism says look out for number one

  • The overall system is suppressing the need for care and love?

    • also suppressing  people's natural empathy for each other

    • it makes people feel bizarre if they let their empathic part out

    • 15:10 people talk about all the lights going out, disasters as being great moments

    • why? because at that moment they felt it was legitimate to care for strangers

    • the hunger for empathy is normally suppressed

    • it is seen as shameful to be seen as caring and empathic

    • it can happen in a large crisis, or rooting for the team

    • 17:20  the social order suppresses empathy

      • in places where it's legitimated.

        • family

      • building places where love is allowed

  • 19:00 How do your values of caring, generosity, wonder, awe etc relate to empathy?

    • empathy is central

    • we are all in it together

    • we are all brothers and sisters

    • The torah starts talking about making humans in gods image

    • holy, sacred

    • The story of Adam and Eve

    • the concept of same family

    • core is our unity

    • legitimates our empathy, they are the same as us

  • 20:30  When did the word empathy start become important to you.

    • caring, generosity, forgiveness wonder, awe are aspects of empathy

    • feeling the others pain

    • if it doesn't manifest if it's not in behavior

    • how to create a space for these

    • Created Network of Spiritual Progressives and Tikkun magazine

    • bring empathy to center of public life

    • for homeland security, personal security - develop empathy, caring

  • 24:40  How to build a Culture of Empathy?

    • great to try to build a culture of empathy

    • part of doing that is to articulate a politics of empathy

    • doing that with Network of Spiritual Progressives and Tikkun magazine

    • create a new bottom line - every organization and personal behavior

      • so it maximizes love, caring, empathy

      • that is efficiency

      • support us

      • this is a new bottom line

  • 27:30 How about not focusing on policies but rather empathy with conservatives?

    • not focused on conservatives

    • speak to those who are heart committed

    • legitimating it

    • a struggle that goes on between people

    • right hand of god: you have to dominate - worldview of fear, domination

    • left hand of god: world is based on love, caring, generosity

    • a continuum between these poles

    • where's the social energy?

  • 32:00 If you want to create an empathic society one thing you need is to help support people to go for the empathic and loving voice

    • individual work

    • and social reality

    • creating communal institutions

    • creating a political movement

      • for example - Network for spiritual covenant

      • schools should have a course each year

        • mentoring

        • developing empathy

        • not in the abstract

  • 34:45  What is the process of creating an empathy movement? there's infighting even in a empathy group.

    • we are all screwed up people

    • we've all been subject to this distorted world that didn't give us the love and recognition we needed

    • every group is going to have screwed up dynamics

    • don't project perfection on people

    • wounded healers is all that we have

    • we are going to screw up

    • step number one is have empathy for our screw-ups

    • there's going to be people acting out,

    • that's all we have on the planet, but they all have a desire to transcend that

    • each group has it's own dynamics

    • need a great deal of practical wisdom

  • 38:40 How has your journey been of organizing and the problems and successes with empathy?

    • screw-up after screw-up after screw-up

    • some successes

    • was helpful in being a psychologist

    • the more loving I became the better the groups I led became

    • I'm proud to have the NSP that is holding together

    • proud of my synagogue

    • it's important to start out with the power

      • used to start out with ultra democracy

      • everyone's opinion is valuable

      • not everyone knows what to do

      • our anti authoritarianism has a deep problem in it

    • large power differences vr. small power differences

    • or demean leaders

    • violence in struggle is a bad idea

    • need acknowledgment that people are at different moral, spiritual, development

    • groups set up that see that

    • 43:00  experience is useful

  • 43:30 Story of republican state convention?

    • converting fear to the empathy

    • we have to empathize with others and love ourselves into a loving society

    • can't dominate our way into a loving others

  • 45:50 What about NVC and reflective listening?

    • I'm all for it

    • it's an important process

    • the difference I had with some practitioners is those processes can be used in a mechanistic way

    • like anything else

    • words can be turned to their opposites

    • in 60's and 70's people beat each other up for not being loving or caring enough

    • what we want to do is empathize with them

    • any set of words can be turned into a dogma

    • some say I want to empathize with that one and that one..

    • well that's a part but need to help people understand the world will need collective action

    • I want to be empathic toward the war maker but not toward the wars

      • want to fight against the wars, against the policies

    • this hasn't been developed enough in the NVC community

  • 50:30  A metaphor of empathy?

    • an explosion of deep joy into the world

    • empathy undermines the sense of being alone

    • the world is full of human beings who reflect us

    • an explosion -

  • 52:44 A metaphor for the opposite of empathy?

    • closing down, the clenched fist, the cave with a big rock in front

    • build of a home with no doors and windows

    • closed off from others and sad

    • very sad

  • 53:40 Anything else?

    • please join us


      • Network Spiritual Progressives

      • my synagogue

    • remove the blocks to empathy, love, generosity