January 5, 2010

with emphathy

I haven't really made any New Year's resolutions yet, as I constantly make/break the obvious ones (pay off credit card, eat less sweets, drink less red wine) throughout the year. However, I wanted to share these ones (found on this lovely blog) with you. They're from The School of Life and are quite worthwhile to keep in mind for 2010 (and beyond).


One of the best ways to develop your capacity to look through the eyes of others and escape the confines of your own worldview, is to have regular conversations with strangers, especially those outside your usual social circle. This doesn’t mean a brief chat about the weather. Rather, it involves a mutual exchange of thoughts on your most important beliefs and experiences, and – crucially – an attempt to understand the world inside the head of the other person. We are confronted by strangers every day – the heavily tattooed guy who delivers your post, the dignified elderly woman across the road who always wears a red beret, the new Thai employee who eats his lunch alone in the office canteen, the woman who sits in the underpass all day preening her dog. Set yourself the challenge of having a conversation with a stranger once a week. All it requires is courage.


Ask yourself this question: When has somebody failed to empathise with me, and what difference has it made? Expanding your empathetic imagination requires recognising the impact that empathy – or its absence – has had on your own life. Perhaps you have a nasty boss who has criticised you for missing a deadline without considering that you are using every spare moment to care for your mother who has Alzheimer’s. Or maybe your partner enjoys spending each Sunday playing five-a-side football with friends, but just can’t see that it burdens you with yet another day of doing the childcare, just when you really need a break. Such experiences – when another person fails to take into account our feelings, beliefs, or daily realities – can upset us, make us angry and diminish our self-worth. Unless you happen to be a rare empathetic saint, you can also ask yourself a second question: When have I failed to empathise with other people, and why? And then a third: When have others empathised with me, and why did it matter? Exploring this triumvirate of questions is sure to help sensitise your empathetic soul.


The film The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy features an ingenious device called the Point-of-View Gun. When it is fired at someone, it causes them to see things from the perspective of the person who pulled the trigger. This singular weapon was designed at the request of the Intergalactic Consortium of Angry Housewives, who were tired of ending every discussion with their husbands with the statement, ‘You just don’t get it, do you!’ There is probably somebody in your family at whom you would dearly love to fire the Point-of-View Gun. But there is equally likely to be someone who would wish to fire it at you. The task before you is to identify a family member you have failed to empathise with and make an effort to do something about it. Give them a phone call or take them out for a meal and do your best to listen and understand where they are coming from. Try to get inside their skin, just like an actor attempts to inhabit their character, and grasp all the nuances of their thoughts and emotions. You might find that your irritating sister or heartless uncle do not deserve the harsh judgement you usually reserve for them.


There is nothing wrong with a little armchair empathy – sitting down with a good book and letting it take you into the mental landscape and experiences of someone whose life is utterly different from your own. This is ideally done through first-person narratives, where you can hear the voice of the author or main character and let it become one with your own. These are five of my favourite empathy books, which will take you on unusual journeys into other minds:

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby (1997): enter the world of a man who is completely paralysed and can only communicate by blinking his left eye.

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell (1933): find out how to become a tramp and what you can learn as a kitchen assistant in a fancy hotel.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown (1970): a history of the American West as told from the perspective of Native Americans such as Sitting Bull and Geronimo.

May the Lord and His Mercy Be Kind to Belfast by Tony Parker (1993): interviews with ordinary and extraordinary people about the conflict in Northern Ireland, from bus-drivers to terrorists.

The Story of My Life by Helen Keller (1903): autobiography of the deaf-blind writer who reveals the beauties of the world by expanding our appreciation of the senses.


We all have prejudices or make false assumptions about others. These are frequently based on the collective labels we apply to people – like ‘single mothers’ or ‘Muslim extremists’ – without delving into their individuality and uniqueness. One of the most rewarding ways to expand your empathy is to gain direct experience of their lives, putting into practice the Native American proverb, ‘Walk a mile in another man’s moccasins before you criticise him’. How can we do this? It requires pinpointing the individual or social group who is the target of your strongest prejudices, and then inventing a way of stepping into their moccasins. So if you disdain people who live off the welfare state, spend a week trying to survive on Job Seeker’s Allowance, which currently stands at £64.30. If you detest wealthy bankers, see if you can shadow one of them at work for a day. If you are fervently religious, you might treat yourself to attending the services of religions different from your own. You get the picture. This experiential empathising is likely to be etched on your skin and memory forever.


  1. Katie! Awesome blog - I really loved this post! I especially liked the first resolution - I'll have to find a way to chat up strangers without coming off as a creep, though.
    I might add these books to the list from #4:

    I love them both because they're graphic novels, which I find help contextualize certain things really well!

    PS: Hope your trip was wonderful!

  2. mariam, thank you for the comment! I'll check out those books (I agree about how graphic novels can contextualize certain things - have you read Maus?).

  3. Katie, I love this blog post :)