Empathy Evolving

Reflections from Ashoka Fellow David Castro on the inaugural Empathy in Action gathering in Washington, D.C.

The children sat in a semicircle around a nearly-toddling baby, who could crawl but not quite stand. A program instructor asked the youngsters: What did the baby want? What was she trying to do? How did she feel? In the middle of the exercise, reaching for a toy, the tot in the center unexpectedly fell over. The children audibly gasped, mentally and emotionally falling over with the little soul who was the subject of their study.

I witnessed this dramatic moment in July, in a video presentation at Ashoka’s national gathering on empathy by Ashoka Fellow and Roots of Empathy founder Mary Gordon. The gathering convened leading thinkers, writers, and activists to reflect and plan for a national empathy movement.

As many readers know, Roots of Empathy is Gordon’s internationally-acclaimed, evidence-based program designed to help children develop social and emotional competency and empathy. The concept is powerfully simple: Children learn empathy by relating to a real baby who visits their classroom.

Gordon’s video showed children connecting intuitively to the infant and to one another, illustrating how humans are born with natural empathy skills, “hard-wired” to take on each other’s perspectives and emotions. These are empathy’s roots, and we spent many hours together during the conference exploring the trunk and tree limbs, thinking through a host of questions critical to the empathy initiative: What is empathy exactly? How do social situations and systems enhance or suppress it? What role does empathy play in leadership, citizenship, parenting, and community success? How do these skills influence conflict resolution? What do we know about empathy development? How do we measure it?

As one would expect, the meeting generated more questions than answers. We made progress on a working definition: Empathy includes the ability to understand another’s perspectives and feelings. But we wondered whether empathy under this definition could be misused to manipulate. We noted that many adults with powerful empathic abilities they may use them to gain selfish advantage over others. Should the definition of empathy include a moral component? Does true empathy require constructive care and concern for others? Or is it merely the ability to understand and feel through another’s perspective?

This challenge — the critical distinction between normative and descriptive inquiry — was very familiar to me. As a teacher of leadership skills, I have often encountered confusion regarding whether we are studying and practicing what leaders actually do or what they should do. The difference matters enormously, because if we practice what leaders actually do, we can learn by studying leaders. But if we practice what they should do, we will only learn effectively by studying good leaders, a rare group carefully selected from the masses for certain ideal leadership skills.

The distinction between normative and descriptive analysis deeply affects the role of science, observation, and experiments in our work. If we seek only to describe a practice that we believe has a fixed referent in reality, then reality must govern our conclusions. We derive knowledge through experiments and painstaking observation. We can clearly understand this kind of analysis when thinking about large natural systems. To understand how the stars and planets behave, it is clear that we need to employ instruments and make observations. How we would wish the cosmos to behave is irrelevant. The universe just is.

But within the mansion of normative dialogue, things change. The domain of science, observation, and experiment must yield to creative vision. Our study has a different referent; rather than reality, we’re looking at a chosen ideal that we are striving to achieve. Science and observation can help us realize the ideal, but cannot refute the ideal itself.

The normative concept of equality illustrates this limit. In reality, humans obviously are not “created equal.” Indeed, they are created profoundly unequal in their abilities, opportunities, and, I would even argue, in their actual access to formal systems of justice. Nevertheless, we hold fast to the aspiration for equality as a normative ideal. We want to create a world in which human beings have equal opportunities. Science and observation can play an important subsidiary role by shedding light on effective strategies to promote the equality we seek.

At the outset of the empathy movement, this distinction between normative and descriptive work is crucial. As founders of the movement, we must define empathy not as we find it, but as a crafted ideal in social practice among humans. Our definition of empathy should include a moral dimension. Empathy is not merely an extant human capacity, it is also an idealized practice in human relationships. We see glimmers of the ideal in reality, just as we see beauty in certain works of art. Idealized empathy appears in the relationship between a loving mother and infant. This is the brilliance behind Roots of Empathy, which helps children learn through experience of the ideal.

A normative ideal of empathy should build intentionally on a description of empathy, and should include not only thinking and feeling as another but also concern for the other’s best interests. Our conversations should illustrate that empathy is evolving within the human spirit. We have the potential to improve.

To that end, I would add something specific to our understanding of the ideal: Empathy entails concern for another’s best interests in the unique way that he or she would freely choose to advance them. This aspect of empathy sometimes emerges within the parent-child relationship. I find it captured most profoundly in these lines from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet:

On Children

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday…

Gibran captures the great beauty of love that benevolently guides and supports while encouraging creative freedom and independence. Recognizing that life does not tarry with yesterday, we set our mark upon the path of the infinite. By embracing creative vision, empathy sets itself apart from other practices. Empathy calls us to explore not only who we are but whom we choose to become.

As I returned from the empathy gathering, I found myself thinking about love. Of course, this is the point, isn’t it? Children in the Roots of Empathy program are learning how to love, in the sense of Martin Luther King’s concept of agape, the highest form of love, distinguished it from romantic and filial love. Agape served as the foundation of King’s belief in a knowable God capable of inspiring the nonviolence movement. He called it ‘‘purely spontaneous, unmotivated, groundless and creative. It is the love of God operating in the human heart.”

Agape is hard work. Humans may be born with a natural capacity to love, but to express agape requires patient practice and development. It is the art of love taken to its highest form, just as  a beautiful symphony is the result of a composer’s years of study and practice. The empathy movement taking hold through the work of Ashoka and its partners asks us to imagine a world in which every human could become capable of writing a symphony of love, capable of agape. Imagine that. Do you feel goose bumps?

Two closing thoughts, the first from Albert Einstein, who said quite simply: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” The empathy movement must be guided by our creative vision. Empathy must transform reality, not be defined by it.

And last but not least, ancient wisdom from St. Paul:

If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal.

And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing.


Photo via [auro]