Empathy: the ‘imaginative leap’ towards the other

Janet Etuk and Sean O’Callaghan in Beyond Caring at the Yard Theatre. Photograph by Mark Douet.

Janet Etuk and Sean O’Callaghan in Beyond Caring at the Yard Theatre. Photograph by Mark Douet.

Empathy is now acknowledged scientifically as an essential ingredient of human well-being, but it takes work. We can only appreciate the lives of others to the extent that we can establish a connection with them. We also have to be prepared to make an “imaginative leap”, into the lives of someone beyond our own. Once this is achieved, it can lead to the shedding of certain established prejudices about others in the process.

In his recent book Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution, Roman Krznaric argues that it is “outrospection”, the emotional capacity to empathise with others, that is “an antidote to the self-absorbed individualism that we have inherited from the last century”. The results of such an attitude could lead to significant social change.

Krznaric emphasizes the importance of art and of storytelling to the foundations of empathy. To this end he has established The Empathy Library for sharing books and films to inspire a global empathy revolution. Beyond Caring (pictured above), a piece of original theatre commissioned by The Yard in Hackey Wick in 2014, is my recommendation for this library, for the way it carefully lifts the lid on an otherwise rarely seen, much discussed but far-less-understood invisible working class. It challenges to confront the extent to which we are “beyond caring” about the lives of others. My review of the play is on the Litro website.

Empathy is a key component in the audience’s engagement with the Netflix series Orange is the New Black, where we witness varying degrees of empathy in the most unlikely of places, from inside a women’s prison in America. The script initially invites us to identify with the young blonde, whose freedom has seemingly been taken away from her by her unfortunate dealings with a drug cartel ten years ago. We are constantly reminded at the beginning of the first series that this is a woman who does not belong in a place like prison with these other women. However, as the series progresses, we are shown how to empathise with the inmates as we are shown glimpses of their past lives before they were in prison. The individuality of each characters’ suffering reminds us that we can all be drawn into difficult circumstances, no matter what our backgrounds. In its broadly generous and warm portrayal of all the characters, Piper Chapman does not ultimately demand our empathy any more than any of her fellow inmates. This is the ‘imaginative leap’ that eschews prejudice and opens our minds.

The aim may not be to make the ‘invisible’ visible, or give the ‘other’ a voice (for this only affirms a preconceived superiority or power imbalance), but to do away with such categories all together, and to understand that our perceived differences are as fleeting as anything else about us.