Anybody who reads novels is a secret empathist. Most writers of fiction try to take you on a journey into the minds and lives of their characters, introducing you to worldviews that are not your own, filling your head with the voices of strangers. An instance from the history of empathetic literature is Virginia Woolf’s The Waves (1931), a story told from the perspective of five individuals, with all the dialogue and action being submerged in their thoughts. When we read books like The Waves, we are inevitably drawn to make the imaginative leap that is empathy.
I think novelists, who spend so much time attempting to understand the mental worlds of their protagonists, have a peculiar ability to appreciate the meaning and significance of empathy. One of the best examples of this is an article that Ian McEwan wrote in The Guardian, published just a few days after the September 11 attacks. It is, in effect, a meditation on empathy. ‘Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity,’ he writes. ‘It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.‘ Here is the article in full. Continue reading →
One of the greatest challenges of leading an empathetic life is trying to step into the shoes of people who we consider to be ‘enemies’ or whose views and values are very different from our own. If you’re on the receiving end of a racist comment from someone at the pub or a torrent of unfair verbal abuse from your boss, the idea of trying to empathise with them would probably be the last thing on your mind. If you came face to face with the person who had recently burgled your house, could you overcome your anger to see the crime from their perspective, and understand the circumstances that may have driven them to it?
Empathising in such instances might seem like wishful thinking. But consider the case of Jo Berry. Continue reading →
A recent report by Human Rights Watch has highlighted the persecution in Vietnam of followers of the Zen Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh. Now in his eighties and author of books that have sold over a million copies, Thich Nhat Hanh is known as one of the founders of ‘engaged Buddhism’, which seeks to apply Buddhist ideas to help tackle social, economic and environmental injustice. He first came to public attention in the 1960s when nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King for his opposition to the Vietnam War. He has now been making headlines for criticising the Vietnamese government for its failure to ensure religious freedom. Continue reading →