Because I work in a writing center, there’s always talk about how better to get across to the student you’re helping that you’re serious about helping them overcome their challenges. That you ‘feel their pain’ in a totally non-ironic, non-Clintonesque way. Displaying empathy.
The trouble with conversations like this is that often I hear too much focus on how to display empathy. “Think about sick kittens” was a half-joking response in the most recent discussion I witnessed, dwelling on the method without properly dwelling on what it means to be empathetic.
The difference is an understanding that the easiest way to display empathy is to actually have empathy.
Genuine empathy is something that no Stanislavski technique is ever going to teach you to emulate if it’s not actually there to begin with.
Empathy is the triumph of imagination over instinct.
I’m sitting across from a student. That student has a (generally) very concrete academic issue that they need our help with. An hour or half hour appointment isn’t long enough to really delve into their life and motivations and challenges and obstacles… so we revert to emotional shorthand: Archetype, Stereotype, Xenotype, cross-type and match and then move on. Help the student get their paper finished. Get them as close to the “A” as you can.
There’s always another student waiting.
Everyone does it. We imagine others in the simplest possible terms because it’s the least taxing manner in which to interact with others. I think of it as emotional shorthand.
Don’t believe me? A driver cuts you off and speeds off down the highway ahead of you at breakneck speed.
What do you do?
If you’re like me, you swear, call into question their parentage and generally think ill of them. What a jackass.
We don’t generally assume they are a doctor rushing to save a life or a son rushing to the bedside of his dying father because the conditioned response is one-dimensional.
Archetype: Bad driver
Think this isn’t a blogpost about writing? How many movies do you see where the characters are a mile wide and an inch deep? How many books? Where do these one-dimensional paper cutout characters come from if not a perceived refusal on the part of the reader (or writer) to be willing to fully-envision someone as a complicated and often contradictory entity apart from us?
And why not? We do this every day in real life, more often than anyone is willing to admit. We fail to fully accept the person standing opposite us is an entity with a big bag of reasons for saying, seeing, doing what they do the way that they do. We turn on the emotional shorthand function and imagine them in the simplest possible terms before we move on.
The person in the express checkout with three too many items, the person that cut you off on I-5, the ESL student whose accent you can’t understand, the coworker who is always late, the waitress who doesn’t keep your coffee full… Do you think they're inherently bad people? Or are they reacting to parts of their experience that we don't get to see? Or do you honestly think about it at all?
Archetype + Stereotype = Conditioned response.
For better or worse, writers use this fact all the time. Big dudes are bad. Skinny dudes are nerds. Sexy blondes are airheads. Fat women are bitter about it... the list of sins is long.
Empathy is hard. We have to act against the human impulse to assume motivations, to act on information not in evidence, to simplify situations so they’ll be less stressful. At the risk of getting too John Lennon here, we have to imagine all the people. Empathy is imagining others as complex entities that are momentarily overlapping us like an organic Venn diagram.
The trouble with this isn’t the question of how better to display empathy, the trouble derives from the question not digging deep enough. It appears to focus on giving the appearance of empathy rather than finding ways to display and incorporate actual empathy into our interactions with the people around us.
Empathy is best defined (by me anyway) as laying aside the simplistic and instinctual reversion to a gut response. No one is a stereotype, archetype or paragon. Showing genuine empathy is about supplanting our shorthand with a fully-imagined person, an open reception of all that they are displaying to us in every nuance of their manner and beyond the ubiquitous device of "actively listening", what we should be doing is "actively imagining".