Building empathy and compassion in a heartless world

A man named Edwin Rutsch has started a movement to study empathy and compassion.  (Some of us believe there is an empathy deficit here in the US and would like to change that.)  He referred those of us interested in the topic to the Stanford University Compassion Action Blog.   My contribution to their site is this:

I think one way to build empathy and compassion into people is to develop their imagination.  One needs a strong imagination in order to really “feel” for someone else, to imagine what it might be like to be someone else.   It occurs to me that some people are cruel to each other without realizing it.  I think that we like to think of ourselves as good people, but when we don’t understand other people it can be easier to pass judgment than it is to actually take the time (and, yes, it can take a lot of time) to try to figure out why they did what they did.  One can be the most well-meaning person in the world, but without an imagination, one can inflict a lot of pain on others just by not understanding.

In my humble opinion, the primary reason why so many Americans lack an imagination is that TV set.  In many ways, years of watching TV teaches people to not think for themselves, to view life like a “TV show” with a predictable beginning, middle, and end, to think that other people will react and behave in a certain way, as though human interaction can be scripted or controlled with a tap on the remote.

I read about a man named George Gerbner who had  worked for the Annenberg Foundation back in the 70s.  Gerbner studied the effects of television on its viewers.  Gerbner, who had escaped fascism in his native Hungary by moving to the US, had predicted back then that the US was headed toward fascism. Years of watching TV, he claimed, was making people very fearful (hence the need for more policing and the obsession with national security.)  It is an irrational, unnatural fear resulting from the mental conditioning of growing up viewing violence on a daily basis.  This is something most children did not experience before the advent of television.  As people become more fearful, they begin to rely more on authority figures to keep them “safe.”

Years of watching TV also keeps people from interacting directly with each other.  Books such as “Bowling Alone” discuss the disconnectedness of Americans.  Americans just aren’t socializing much anymore.  We come home and sit in front of “the tube” because we’d rather passively watch other people interacting on that screen than have real life interactions with red-blooded, fully alive human beings in the same room.  We may be sitting right next to each other.  Yet instead of looking into each other’s eyes we are staring at that screen.  We don’t see, hear, or feel the presence of each other–even when we sit side by side.  We don’t want to talk to each other.  That’s not entertaining.  It’s more enjoyable to watch other people talk to each other.  No wonder we hear stories of people dying and no one notices until they smell that funny smell…

We’re all very much alone, together.  Why?

I don’t think very many people are happy this way, yet we choose to live this way.  Again, why?

One of my favorite quotes is this one:  “All men are free, but everywhere they are in chains…”  Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  We, as humans, say we want the world to be a better place yet we keep creating problems, chains that hold us back.  Once again, I ask, why?

Perhaps one way to foster imagination in students (which I believe would result in their being more compassionate people) would be challenge to them to stop watching TV completely for an entire month and then to keep a journal and write about their experience–what did they do instead?  Was it hard, like giving up a drug, to do without one’s favorite TV show?  Did they find themselves reading more, learning new skills, such as playing a musical instrument, or just talking with other people more frequently?  I wonder how many people could actually do it.  My guess is that many people would drop out of the experiment, unable to do without their television for even a day.

Taking acting classes also helped me to develop my imagination in terms of dealing with others.  (I miss acting so much!)  There are lots of really good acting exercises that teach empathy–a required skill for actors.  Many people don’t realize that to be a good actor, one needs to have empathy and compassion, to understand one’s character.  Even if you’re playing the part of a cold-blooded killer, you’ve got to understand that character in order effectively portray him/her.

One Meisner acting technique has two people standing to face each other.  One of them makes slow movements, raising both their hands over their head, for example, or picking up a foot and shaking it in the air. The other person, silently, mimicks the first person’s behavior as exactly as possible.  After a few minutes of doing this, they take turns, reversing roles.  Eventually, both actors become “in sync” and a sort of intimacy starts to occur.

Another exercise I really enjoyed also involved two people sitting facing each other and with eyes closed.  With eyes closed, one person places his/her hands over the face of the other person and slowly feels the shape of the other person’s face.  How wide is their forehead?  Is their face round or oval?  How is the nose shaped?  The cheekbones?  One places hands over the other’s face for a few minutes, getting a good feel for the other person’s face and imagining what that face might look like then (eyes still closed!) he/she then takes their hands away but shaped like a mold of the other person’s face then places their hands on his/her own face, noticing the difference in the shape of the forehead, cheekbones, jaw, lips, overall facial structure.  This is a very intimate exercise.  People feel like they’ve made an close connection with each other after doing it, and it’s really quite amazing because we don’t always really look at each other very carefully.  But after doing this, we really take the time to examine another human being.

I appreciate your taking the time to study this.  I believe our inability to care about each other and our disconnection from each other is at the core of our current problems in the US.

So that’s it.  My contribution.  What do you think?  Do you see yourself as a compassionate person?  Or do you think that being compassionate makes you weak, a doormat?  Do you think that when people ask you for help they are taking advantage of you?  Or does it make you feel good knowing you’ve helped someone else?


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