Why George Orwell is my empathy hero

I was recently interviewed by The Browser – a fabulous site which compiles quality writing from around the web - about my five top books on the art of living. In the following extract I discuss George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, a book which has been a major inspiration for all my work on empathy. 

George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London is your second choice. What does it teach us?

I think that Orwell was one of the great travel adventurers of the 20th century. The reason I think that is because in Down and Out in Paris and London he showed that empathy could become an extreme sport and the guideline for the art of living. It’s the second half of the book that I particularly like, in which he describes how he went tramping in east London. He would dress up as a tramp and go into the streets of London, fraternising with beggars and people living on the streets. He was trying to empathise with people who lived on the social margins.

One has to remember that Orwell had an incredibly privileged background. He went to Eton, he was an officer in the colonial police in Burma for five years. He realised that he didn’t know how everyday people lived, so his experiments in the late 1920s and 30s of tramping in London were a form of travel really, or experiential adventuring. He was trying to experience how other people lived, to get a taste of their lives. By doing so, he discovered that empathy isn’t something that makes you good but something that is good for you. So for me, Orwell is one of my great empathic heroes.

Tell us more about the crucial role of empathy, which I know is a great interest of yours. What should we all keep in mind about empathy?

I think we’ve been too obsessed with self-interest over the last century, and that’s limited the way that we pursue the good life. I think that empathy – the ability to try to imagine yourself into someone else’s life, to look through their eyes – can expand our lives enormously. Of course, if you see somebody begging under a bridge you might feel sorry for them or toss them a coin, but that’s not empathy, it’s sympathy or pity. Empathy is when you have a conversation with them, try to understand how they feel about life, what it’s like sleeping outside on a cold winter’s night – try to make a real human connection and see their individuality.

The benefit of this is not only that it widens your own moral universe, but that it engages you with other people and other ways of living. It expands your curiosity to new ideas of how to live. That’s what happened to Orwell. He expanded his moral universe by talking to beggars and people sleeping on the streets, but also he met incredible characters. He was energised for his literary work by everything that he saw. It was the great travel adventure of his life, and that’s ultimately what I think empathy can do for us.

The lessons which Orwell says he learned from this experience of poverty seem almost mundane – simply that he shall “never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny”.

I think it’s anything but mundane. The traditional way to think about social change is about changing political institutions – new laws, new policies, overthrowing governments and so on. I think social change is actually about creating a revolution of human relationships. About changing the way people treat each other on an everyday basis. That’s what Orwell was learning about. He was talking to individuals – understanding the minutiae of their lives – and after his time living in the streets of London he went on to do journalistic work which was really about trying to connect with human lives.

For example, in his book The Road to Wigan Pier there’s a famous essay called “Down the Mine”, when he goes down a coal mine and tries to understand what it’s like to be a coal miner. These coal miners were powering British society at the time – coal created everything. Orwell said if you don’t understand their lives, you understand nothing.

Read the full interview here - and discover my other top books on the art of living.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted 29 February 2012 at 1.28pm | Permalink

    One thing I learnt through my depression, is empathy, and to completely try to feel it from others’ shoes. I had always thought people who attempted suicide were “stupid”. It’s not until I was on that verge myself, I understood what it felt like. As I recover from depression, I’ve learnt to be slow to judge, and to find the story behind. Not very good at it yet, but a good lesson.

    Plus, Orwell is my favourite author too

    Stumbled across here at a friend’s recommendation, here in Beijing.

    Noch Noch

  2. Tanja
    Posted 6 April 2012 at 2.58pm | Permalink

    Funny, but I just read this Orwell’s book and it made me think not only about empathy as such but also solidarity, as for example displays through Orwell’s relationship with Boris in Paris which are possibly related concepts. It makes me think of something else, individualism of contemporary post-industrial society results in very self-centered socialization process, meaning empathy and imagining the way other people live might not be necessary a valuable characteristics. So, I wonder how empathy could be taught, for example in Orwell’s way, mixing with people from different social, ethnic, cultural backgrounds…I’ll try to catch your talk at Hay on Wye festival, it is a very interesting topic :).

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