Empathy Foundational Values

Imagination With Relation

🎹 Music for this post:

This fine spring morning, I went for a run between Lancaster and Witmer Pennsylvania, in what is colloquially known as Pennsylvania Dutch Country. If you haven’t walked or run these roads, I recommend you add this to your list of things to try. There is a magical humanity in the exchange of a wave from a sunlit hand peeking forward from the shadows of a horse-drawn buggy to warmly greet you as you pass from the opposing direction on the shoulder of a road. The sound of horseshoes on worn pavement ruts enhances the atmosphere, which is quite unlike anything else in the modern world.

While running west on Horseshoe Road under cloudless skies, I saw an Amish boy of nine or ten topped with a straw hat, transporting a reel mower from a neighbor’s property on the opposing shoulder. As I got closer, I saw him look over at me. We exchanged waves, as the people of Pennsylvania Dutch Country are pleasantly prone to do. He mostly focused on his errand, but he continued to occasionally glimpse over his shoulder and behold me as I slowly chugged past him. I wondered what he was thinking. Would he prefer to be free of chores and playing as I was? Did he simply think what I was doing was inane? Or was he simply wondering what I might be thinking of him and his activities?

As I passed from view, I thought: we will never see each other again, and he should live for decades beyond me. Might he recall today’s vignette as a random memory long after my time here, as I have for so many similar scenes from my youth?

About ten minutes later, I witnessed a similar scene of an Amish girl of like age, busy mowing her front lawn with a nearly-identical mower. As I ran past, she dropped her machine onto the green grass beneath, and ran toward her front door in a way a child who wanted to do anything but chores might. En route, she, too, took a moment to look over at me and wave in a similarly kind manner as the boy had. She quickly disappeared inside.

If I share that these bucolic scenes are elemental episodes of empathy, how do you feel? We are conditioned to believe that empathy involves identifying something amiss in another individual’s exigency so that we can find appropriate actions or words in response. We typically miss, however, that empathy is an emotion-agnostic notion that can be employed in myriad ways that enhance our appreciation of our world.

Because of this, I like to share that empathy is imagination with relation. In other words, empathy is the use of our imagination to gain an appreciation or understanding of another’s feelings or situation. This is done without regard to the emotions at hand. We can employ empathy when we behold the work of others, present or past, such as artists or architects; or artifacts as simple as laid pavement or the lines painted thereon. We can empathize with a willow swaying in a cold winter wind…an ant enjoying the honeydew of an aphid…a bumblebee hitching pollen in its fuzz…a dog gazing at us while munching a treat…or a turkey vulture tearing meat from a carcass.

The aim of empathy is not to agree and it is not to sympathize; it is merely to understand, or at least attempt to understand. To paraphrase Alfred, Lord Tennyson: It is better to have empathized and misunderstood than to have never empathized at all. An expression of deeply-attempted understanding between two people is more likely to be well-received than blunt ignorance. This is because humans recognize that it can be difficult for us to understood one another.

As has been quoted many times, Martin Buber once wrote:

In spite of all similarities, every living situation has, like a newborn child, a new face, that has never been before and will never come again. It demands of you a reaction that cannot be prepared beforehand. It demands nothing of what is past. It demands presence, responsibility; it demands you.

—Between Man and Man (1948)

When we demonstrate presence and responsibility, others tend to appreciate it, even if we wind up wrong. That mere appreciation opens the possibility of a response that ultimately helps us gain understanding.

Joe: Good morning! I see that big smile on your face, Mark. You must be looking forward to your fishing trip later today!

Mark: I sure am happy, Joe, but the real thing I’m looking forward to is seeing my grandson get his first bicycle for his birthday this morning!

When you hear “Happy Birthday” sung at a neighboring restaurant table, what do you do? You might survey the table to identify whose special day it is. You might look to see if a treat is being presented, along with the embellishments employed. You might look for smiles to make sure everything is as planned. You might even sing along and applaud.

But how often do you afford yourself to imagine, in any depth: What might it be like to be at that table right now?

I’m fairly sure that most of us don’t employ empathy at times like this. Why is that? I suspect it’s because it requires energy, and since we don’t have a clear idea of immediate gain, we choose instead to apply our energy to other things.

That might be a mistake.

Suppose you are fifty years old, and the birthday girl at your neighboring table is joyously celebrating her ninetieth year of life. Would you take a moment to think: I wonder what makes her particularly happy today? How does chocolate cake make her feel? Does she like icing? Dark coffee? What did she have for dinner? Or for lunch? How late did she sleep in? Did she listen to music or watch a favorite movie with her grandchildren? Did she feel a particular connection in her prayers this morning? Does she know how well those glasses complement her face? Did she put a lot of work into choosing them? What profound lessons did she learn from her struggles that enable her to feel at ease this evening?

You may tell me: I did that for a bit, but someone at my own table told me to stop daydreaming. Well, good for you.

Runners like to say:

The only way to run faster is to run faster.

The same is true for empathy. The more you do it, the better your conditioning will be. Taking every opportunity for “imagination with relation” will make you a stronger empathizer.

Postscript: Prior to today, I’ve penned ten posts touching upon empathy. I’d have written more if it weren’t such a tired topic. Despite that, empathy is, of course, one of the most useful skills that any of us could hone, so when I do write about it, I try to reward readers with something that I believe is novel. My introductory post on empathy in 2020 offered a brief but profound exercise that I hope you have an opportunity to try sometime.

A month or so later, I introduced the concept of invisibleism, a form of discrimination against people due to things we cannot see and, therefore, neglect to consider when dealing with others.

If there is something that ties these two notions together, it is an acknowledgement that empathy requires much more work than many people appreciate. I hope that this post, like the others, helps you with this, adding something new to the way you approach your empathy-building skills.

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