So you think compassion means being nice to people? Sure, its Latin root literally means ‘to suffer with another’, which is pretty close to the psychological concept of ‘affective empathy’, where you share in or mirror someone else’s emotional state. When I feel your pain or suffering, I may well do something to help you [...]
In the spring of 472 BC the people of Athens queued up to see the latest play written by Aeschylus, the founder of Greek tragedy. The Persians was an unusual production, and not only because it was based on an historical event rather than the usual legends of the gods. What must have really shocked [...]
After being out of print for nearly a century, Helen Keller’s sensational collection of essays, The World I Live In, has recently reappeared in a variety of editions. Although her life is often remembered as an uplifting tale of personal triumph over extreme physical adversity, it is just as much an inspiration for how to expand our imaginations. By taking us on a journey into her dark and soundless world, her writings can help us rethink the nature of perception itself.
If you’ve ever sat up late wondering if empathy can save the world, I have good news for you. It can. Well, that is according to Robert McNamara, US Secretary of State from 1961 to 1968. In the Academy Award winning documentary The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, the former bigwig in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations – who died last year aged 93 – reveals what he learned about war and foreign policy during his political career. The surprising first lesson is this: ‘empathize with your enemy’.
Earlier this week I went to an entertaining talk by the writer Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, Blink and other bestsellers. Midway through he made a throwaway comment about the bombing of Hiroshima in August 1945. ‘Imagine how it felt to be the pilot who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima – how do we feel about that kind of moral responsibility?’ The implication of this rhetorical question was that the pilot must have been desperately wrestling with the ethical consequences and dilemmas of releasing the world’s first atomic weapon on the unsuspecting city.
Malcolm Gladwell is mistaken. In actual fact, the US Air Force pilot, Paul Tibbets, experienced no profound moral quandaries about his actions, either before or after dropping the bomb that killed an estimated 140,000 people. In a revealing interview with the oral historian Studs Terkel in 2002, when aged 87, Tibbets described exactly what happened on the historic mission in the Enola Gay.
The moment has finally come for the Outrospection blog to put its cards on the table and boldly declare who are the greatest empathists of all time. Our selection committee has been painstakingly deliberating over the choices for several months, and you might well be surprised by the results. No, Barack Obama does not appear in our top five, even though he believes ‘the empathy deficit’ to be the greatest scourge of modern society. And not even famed empathetic individuals such as the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa or Jesus Christ have shown what it takes to make the grade.
‘When I came to that late-January morning the hospital opthalmologist was leaning over me and sewing my right eyelid shut with a needle and thread, just as if he were darning a sock. Irrational terror swept over me.’ These words appear in Jean-Dominique Bauby’s remarkable autobiography, The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly (1997). In 1995 Bauby was at the height of his career as editor-in-chief of French Elle magazine, when he was suddenly struck by a massive stroke. Although his mental faculties were unimpaired, he was left completely paralysed and speechless, a rare condition known as Locked-In Syndrome. The only part of his body he could move was his left eyelid, which he used to ‘dictate’ the book, having developed a system of repeated blinks to represent each letter of the alphabet.
Perhaps you are looking forward to falling asleep in front of a mediocre DVD on Christmas Day as you digest an oversized lunch. But if you care for a more stimulating afternoon, I can recommend treating yourself to an empathy film instead. So, what are the options? A fascinating genre that can expand our empathetic [...]
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