We need a radical empathy movement

We all need hope.

A sense of possibility that things can get better.

But hope isn’t always easy to find.

A glance at almost any news article, whether left or right-leaning, can leave you with a sense that things are somehow hopeless.

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Things are going wrong. Terrible events are unfolding now, or have just happened. Or are just around the corner. Invariably, there isn’t much to be done.

The cynical journalist’s mantra, ‘If it bleeds, it leads,’ was born in the 1980s – shock and horror-fuelled news cycles are older still. But most recently the news seems to be doing its best impression of the world’s biggest car crash. We’re the rubberneckers.

But are things really hopeless?

Nothing could be further from the truth.

I don’t want to disregard the roiling geopolitical tumult, or diminish the importance of stark issues the world faces right now.

But every time I observe people (myself included) acknowledge their sticky-stomach sense of dread, failing courage, sinking spirits, I want to pipe up and remind them:

With very few outright exceptions, people are good.

Even cruel, greedy people are good sometimes. Hey, cruel and greedy things occurred to me before breakfast today.

But consider:

  1. The last person who seemed to actively enjoy giving you a fine or ticket.
  2. That kid who bullied you at school.
  3. The politician that stirs violent tendencies in you.
  4. Piers Morgan.

I am willing to bet they are all good people, at least some of the time. The way they act is probably the most rational response to the way their lives have been going right up to today, to now.

When we act in an ugly way, it’s because we are not in touch with the magic dust that helps us be our best selves: empathy.

Sort-of magic powers

Empathy is the ability to imagine what life might be for another person. To ‘put yourself in their shoes’. Not demonising nor sanctifying, but trying to understand what it’s really like for them.

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It is a magic trick.

There are some people who can’t perform it, who are categorised as psychopaths.

But almost everyone else can practice empathy. It’s the world’s biggest secret, and the biggest reason to hope.

Practicing and developing empathy makes life easier. It helps us make sense of the world. It helps us form connections with each other and build meaningful, mutual understanding. It makes us happy.

Empathy is attractive

From great leaders like Gandhi, to writers like J K Rowling, to that person in your own community running the campaign to keep the library open – people who can

a) imagine what life is like for others, and,

b) act on and share what they’ve realised,

are very attractive.

People who are empathic listen to us, and we are drawn to them in return and want to know what they have to say. They are easy to support and to help. They inspire empathy in us.

Practicing empathy is building a beacon: you create light and warmth, and people are drawn to it.

We can all build a beacon.

It takes courage

Especially now. According to current affairs, society is divided. Apparently people only care about themselves, and are living in bubbles.

People are voting for time to turn back to one in which we knew our neighbours and people were decent.

I genuinely think that in empathy, we have the power to turn everyone into our neighbours.

Think about those people in your life that you love. It is stating the obvious to say that you want them to be happy. You wouldn’t want them to face pain or hardship. If you could do something to stop that from happening, you would.

Empathy allows us to consider any person and feel for the thread that binds us to them, to sense what we share, and ultimately, to feel concern for them in much the same way we would about our closest friends and relatives.

Empathy bursts bubbles, unites groups. It is a spur to action, to creativity, to achievement, to service.

Empathy is a radical act

What the world needs is a radical empathy movement – and it is already happening.

If all the people who volunteer were a nation, they’d be the world’s eighth biggest country. Around the world, people are building enterprises, projects and products that solve some of our most urgent social issues, powered by empathy.

My hunch is that in addition to these people, there are 100 times as many again who have a notion that they want to feel more connected, to contribute more and to use their unique lifetime to serve and to make life a couple of degrees nicer.

So, back to hope

We need hope because it gives us a sense of possibility. With empathy, we add a personal connection.

We gain a confidence in having something to contribute that could make a difference to something that really matters, that we care about.

We can all contribute to this radical empathy movement. We don’t need to write a book, start an enterprise or invent something (although many of us have it in us to do so, in the confidence of being connected to a network of others).

Seeing others is enough. Listening. Noticing your fellow tube passengers and that they are all individuals with hopes, struggles and loves. Same for your colleagues, the man in the shop, the people in the news.

A club for radical empathy would give us hope that we are not alone. We are connected. We have the energy and heart to reach out and contribute what we have to give, to feel people draw closer to us in return. We are building our beacons and making a difference in that little bit of the universe that revolves around us.

I’m working on starting the Radical Empathy Club, a magazine/podcast that will share the stories of inspiring people working on some of the most astonishing and uplifting projects powered by empathy. Watch this space for more! 

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