Saturday, 28 November 2009

Empathy, ducks and the key to the future

I have this long held conviction that the re-discovery and re-finding of the seemingly unique ability of people to empathise, individually and as a society, will hold the key to the future. Empathy seems to be unique to humans, whereas sympathy might be experienced by other animals - such as primates. The ability to understand and share the feelings of others is at the heart of all spirituality - it is the key to action and can unlock great forces within individuals as well as societies. To truly empathise is difficult and requires great imagination - as the psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut said -

"Empathy is the capacity to think and feel oneself into the inner life of another person".

And that is what allows us to write great poetry and fiction, compose music, help those in need and to understand the forces of history.

There is no way we can understand the meaning and message behind the lives of the Buddha, Christ, The Prophet or any other great spiritual leader unless our ability to empathise is honed. Empathy is thought to be innate to some degree, but can be learned and refined - or completely stamped out.

Is it just confined to humans? When a dolphin or an ape helps a human in trouble, and there are certainly examples of that, are they empathising? I believe that is sympathy - wanting to help a creature in trouble. And animal behaviourists would say it is adaptive to help - because then others might help you in the future. But empathy involves another layer of concern and understanding that goes beyond good works and enters into the realm of imaginative living.

Sympathy will motivate us to practical action to help those in need - empathy will drive those feelings to a deeper level of sustained action that will solve problems and work for change. And we need that in every situation. We will change the world for the better is empathy is on the curriculum, in the papers and out on the streets.

I found this quite old blog on the web. It makes some good points about the effects on society when empathy is stifled - leading to slavery, apartheid, gross differences in wealth, cruelty and abuse. But if empathy permeated society we couldn't allow any of those to happen.

But what about empathy and the environment? Can we feel ourselves in the position of a habitat? A tuna? Perhaps not - in the same way anyway - but we can reflect on the duck story. Those who know me will have heard this story many times, but it is worth repeating because it raises questions that need to be answered.

When I made natural history films I filmed a rare duck in the High Arctic - a spectacled eider. They never leave the Arctic Circle and amazingly even spend the winter months sitting in huge flocks in the sea ice.

Male Spectacled Eider

I filmed them on a remote island in the middle of the Colville River delta - a wild, flat, muddy, desolate yet hauntingly beautiful place. 4 females regularly nested on this particular island and we saw them raise their young and the ducklings swim off into the vast Arctic ocean. it was magical.

A couple of years later I phoned the man who owned the island and asked how the birds were doing - it is very sad he said, he went to check on them the year after I left and found all 4 had been shot sitting on their nests. No one had taken the bodies for food or feathers, the eggs were cold - they were shot for being ducks on N America.

My question is this: if Christ had been walking over that island and had found those shot ducks - would he have wept? Not just for the wickedness of the people who killed them, but the ducks themselves?

For me, unequivocally yes, for some I have asked (and they are almost all higher levels in the clergy) say no - God would not weep over that which is not human.

To me that is simply wrong-headed and makes God so small minded (but then much of "traditional" religion is so full of boxes God isn't allowed to be big).

Empathy is being able to creatively imagine the right life for those creatures, their sense of well-being in the place they are meant to be and living a life that is flourishing. I don't know whether a duck can feel happiness but it can certainly desire to be in a state that allows it a healthy and fruitful life, and they certainly feel fear and pain. To be shot while nesting for no other reason than a distorted sense of self importance is worth shedding tears for. The potential for those ducks to be fully alive and to contribute to the health, wealth and diversity of the planet was taken away.

The best example of one who lived an empathetic life that we could all emulate is John Muir, whose sense of otherness in nature was unsurpassed. He has to be the greatest environmentalist, nature poet and environmental spiritual leader.

"A few minutes ago every tree was excited, bowing to the roaring storm, waving, swirling, tossing their branches in glorious enthusiasm like worship. But though to the outer ear these trees are now silent, their songs never cease."

And he captures exactly a life with no empathy - for nature or much else.

"Most people are on the world, not in it—have no conscious sympathy or relationship to anything about them—undiffused, separate, and rigidly alone like marbles of polished stone, touching but separate."

And therein lies the source of so many of this earth's woes.

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