Stories for empathy

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I’ve been reading Rebecca Solnit over Christmas.

I shan’t attempt to describe the book, except to say that it is in part an exploration of empathy.

In one chapter she considers the young Che Guevara’s journeys across South America with his friend Alberto Granado. At the time Che – Ernesto – was a medical student and Alberto a doctor. They travelled from leprosy hospital to leprosy hospital, learning about the disease and treating the patients with an ease and openness that the patients they met never forgot.

They discovered that even when the disease was cured limbs and extremities were at risk because the sufferer could no longer feel them – and what was not felt was not looked after.

One Doctor worked on this, encouraging patients to feel, to empathise with, the limbs they no longer identified with, protecting and looking out for them. Solnit writes:

“Empathy is the capacity to feel what you do not literally feel, and Brand taught his young patients a kind of empathy for the extremities that no longer seemed a part of themselves. ’I feel for you’, people say. If pain defines the boundaries of the body, you participate in the social body with those you empathise with, whose pain pains you – and whose joy is also contagious.

Some empathy must be learned and then imagined, by perceiving the suffering of others and translating it into one’s own experience of suffering and thereby suffering a little with them. Empathy can be a story you tell yourself about what it must be like to be that other person; but its lack can also arise from narrative, about why the sufferer deserved it, or why that person or those people have nothing to do with you. Whole societies can be taught to deaden feeling, to disassociate from their marginal and minority members, just as people can and do erase the humanity of those close to them.”

I think we have, as a society, been caught up in a narrative determined to deaden our capacity for empathy. It’s one of the reasons some of us responded so warmly to Jeremy Corbyn in the Summer. Here at last was someone not willing to be bound by that narrative, to start to spell out a different story.

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Stories for empathy

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