Would we have time for empathy?

Guest post by Anna Romer, Associate Director of Evaluation at Facing History and Ourselves

‘Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner’ an old French adage which speaks to what Jane McGonigal referred to as “hard empathy. It means that if we understand completely then we can forgive everything. I have always found this expression to be a double edged sword. Sometimes understanding isn’t enough to get to peace. It suggests, like the premise of the game, that greater empathy will lead to greater understanding and will allow for potentially greater harmony.

Jane’s introductory talk was inspirational, pointing out ways to free our creativity and to imagine new choices and how that imagining and empathy, which also involves imagining experiences of others, and the sense they make of them, can free our creativity. I especially liked her calling on Alice in Wonderland and then reconstructing the dialogue with the Cheshire cat to empower Alice.

However, this kind of hard empathy which others simply call empathy, is more than feelings. It requires the work of understanding and usually emerges out of attentiveness, watching, listening, inquiring and listening some more. Yet, the video itself speaks more to easy empathy, simply sharing feelings and assuming that understanding or action will follow. In fact, we can pay attention and feel the feelings of others already, if we choose to, we can read investigative journalism, enter the life of a refugee girl, imagine what it is to live in the midst of civil war— but most of us don’t do so — is that we don’t have time, don’t want to, don’t want to feel pulled to action? Closer to home, we could spend time with older incapacitated relatives and figure out their feelings, to a degree, and simply be with them, to respond to the isolation, helplessness and despair that aging and frailty can bring. But again, most of us do not. Or we can take a walk with a new mother, listen to her exhaustion and delight in her new life, respond, join her, and diminish her isolation and anxieties, as well as sharing her joy and sense of accomplishment.

It seems to me the problem isn’t lack of opportunity to experience the feelings of others, but rather that we are already overly busy, lacking time, and so wired to shut messy feelings off, not respond, distract ourselves. In an earlier life, I studied the question of how to help physicians listen to their patients. Often they didn’t want to because it would then involve more work, not procedures that they could bill, but messy and complicated issues. Paying attention to the feelings of the people who are in our lives requires time, attention and usually action.  This shadow imagination card elicited a fair amount of response, speaks to that issue— not a lack of awareness of feelings, but the inability to “handle” or be with them, which we already see in our world without devices.

zGraph View of Shadow Imagination played by Janine P.: I wonder what would happen if the person you are communicating with can't handle your strong emotions.
The game itself ,i.e. the playing of cards and responding to the cards played by others— is fascinating, however. The web below shows how this shadow imagination card inspired many responses, including tentacles connecting it to other nodes. The visual imagery of how the ideas are connected are fabulous!

A positive imagination card I found inspiring was this one in response to what we might want #onemillionpeople to feel.

Graph View of Shadow Imagination played by Xinena Ibarra: It will end the privacy and the individuality of the people by not having power of secrecy of their own feelings. #prepaibero


That feeling could be inspiring and almost serve as medicine, a balm for a tough day, if you didn’t analyze or think about it too much. However, it could lead to feelings of anxiety if you hadn’t experienced those feelings from your own mother.  The difference is, we are thinking about how feelings feel when they are directed toward us by someone we love— feeling disembodied feelings, that are not directed towards us, by someone we are in a relationship with might feel quite different, even if they are “positive feelings”.

Positive Imagination: I want #onemillionpeople to feel the unconditional love of a mother and her baby. How amazing it would be to feel so loved for being alive.

The game itself is fast paced and captivating, but quickly these webs and nodes grow too big to really get a sense of what is happening. Does it become a competition to get most points, or most people building on your ideas? Are people listening to one another? It is hard to tell. I find the commenting part to be the most fascinating piece here, even as it is hard to really get your arms around it. I am curious to see how it will grow, and if we will be able to see themes emerging.