Empathy is the ‘cure-all’ – the secret sauce of life

Mary Gordon, founder and director of Roots of Empathy, speaker at the 4th SoH Forum in Reykjavik 2019. This is an extract from an interview made there, in collaboration between SoH Forum and Heartfulness Magazine. You will be able to access the full article in the January 2020 issue of Hearfulness Magazine

Q: Thanks for joining me, Mary. Can I ask you first about empathy, since you work particularly with empathy? And can you tell me a bit more about your work?

A: Well, we work with empathy, and my understanding of empathy is the ability to feel with the other person, not just to understand how they feel but to have the capacity to feel with them. And I think that empathy is the number one attribute of being a human being, and we have too little of it in the world, and it’s a shrinking commodity. But also, I focus on empathy because it’s the common ingredient when you have cruelty, when you have racism, when you have violence, when you have genocides, when you have any of the big horrific things in the world, they’re characterised by the absence of empathy.

So, my work is informed by that conclusion that I came to a long time ago, and also the conclusion that empathy develops in the first year of life, in the loving relationship between the parent and the baby. And so, our work is about increasing empathy in childhood. And we do that by bringing the attachment relationship between the parent and the baby, or parents and the baby, into a classroom over the first year of the child’s life.

We’ve got a lot of research that show that when empathy goes up aggression goes down, and pro-social behaviours go up. So, in the world, we really want our children to be kind, to be considerate, to be collaborative, to be caring, and that’s what the Roots of Empathy children are.

Q: If you were to ask yourself what children need in today’s world to help them develop the values that are embodied by the Forum, what would you say, what would you think?

A: I think the values embodied by the Forum are basic human values. The recognition and inalienable rights of people, human dignity; participation. People who come here typically share a purpose. They might have different avenues, but there is a common denominator of peaceful coexistence on many levels and, in the Roots of Empathy work, we’re really helping children to find a sense of balance in their life, that they would, number one, respect and love themselves – have self-empathy. Because, if you don’t love yourself and if you don’t have empathy for yourself, you don’t have the ability to love others or to have empathy for others. And the problem with the absence of empathy in the world or the decline in empathy, as it can be a generational thing, is that if a little baby is not parented empathically, and if the parent is unable to understand and attune to the baby’s needs, the child doesn’t develop the capacity to attune to the needs of others, to have empathy.

It is about breaking the cycles of violence

So, really, Roots of Empathy is about breaking cycles of violence and poor parenting. And I think the basic human trait that we need in the world is empathy. And if you have that, honesty falls out of it, respect falls out of it. It’s almost as if empathy is the ‘cure all’ – the secret sauce of life. If we can just get empathy, it’s a little bit like the Golden Rule: if you understand how someone is going to feel, why would you hurt them, why would you exclude them, why would you say you’re somehow less human than I am? So, this whole idea of dehumanising one another and ‘hiving’ people off and saying ‘your difference makes you unacceptable’. We celebrate difference in Roots of Empathy, and it’s not visual, it’s not the typical differences of culture and language, of size, or whatever. We talk about the difference in our innate temperament; that a baby comes to the world with a predisposition to see that world in many ways. Some babies come and they’re very intense; emotionally reactive. It’s very hard to parent a baby who’s very intense. So, in the classroom, it’s very hard to teach a child who’s very intense, because they ‘super-react’. They have temper tantrums; when they get disappointed, they don’t have a mild reaction, they have a big reaction. But, if your little baby has a big reaction, nobody says you’re a bad baby. Nobody says, “Go to your room!” You help the baby learn to deal with the big feelings, and what it does is it softens everybody to realise, “Wow, I am like the little baby too, it’s not a moral flaw if I’m very emotionally reactive. It’s who I am.” And the job of teachers and parents and mentors is to help children recognise who they are and help them to live in the world that is. Not to squash them, but to help them understand their reactions. So, when you think about the traits or the qualities that we need in growing up, I think we really need a lot of self-love, giving us the capacity to love others.

The secret to ending all the “-isms” in the world, and to have peaceful coexistence, is to be able to see the humanity in the other

I was asked some years ago by the UN on World Literacy Day to come and speak with the wife of the former president of the United States and two other people on a panel, and I said, “Well, what would you like me to speak about?” and they said, “We have heard that you said, “As important as it is for children to learn to read at school, if they fail to learn to relate, we will have failed societies.” So, this idea of helping children to learn to relate only happens when they can understand how you feel. They have to have empathy. So I think we live really in an emotionally illiterate world, and, yes, you have to learn to read ‘traditionally’ to pull yourself out of poverty, but if you don’t learn to read emotions, you’ll never learn to pull yourself out of isolation. And I think the secret to ending all the ‘-isms’ in the world, and to have peaceful coexistence, is to be able to see the humanity in the other. And this Spirit of Humanity, this beautiful concept, is really, I think, based on empathy.

Q: The Dalai Lama has praised the work that you’re doing. Have you been inspired by him, and do you think there’s a place in the world at the moment for spiritual leaders?

A: Yes, the Dalai Lama is hugely inspirational, but the lovely thing about being with him, whether you’re having dinner with him or you’re on a stage with many millions of people watching, he is so present in the moment with you that you forget all those other people watching, or you forget that there are other people at the table. I think that, apart from all his wonderful writings and philosophies, his capacity to be present and to connect to others was even more impressive.

He invited me to a meeting in India and the meeting was, “How do we end suffering?” So, he believes that we need empathy to end suffering. But your question – what do you think about spirituality in the world? – I think it’s an untapped source of power and joy. Sometimes, we are so busy getting on with life that we almost miss the inner life. I think every person has in them the kindling to burst into flame and to have a spiritual life which doesn’t have to have a name, a stamp, a brand, or be part of a team. To realise the essence of our humanity, you can’t just put it in bottle and sell it, it’s something that’s incalculable; it’s something that defies description, but without it you’re hardly human.

I landed lucky in life

Q: What do you do to keep so happy and positive?

A: Well, I’m pretty well deliriously happy all the time (laughs) so I guess I landed lucky in life. Coming from a very big family where my dad gave most of our money away, it was multi-generational, so I haven’t suffered in life. You know, most people have suffered but I really haven’t had challenges, and I’ve had support. I’ve never been spoiled, but I had support. So, I’m very aware and appreciative of that. Whenever, as a child or even a teenager, I had a concern, especially when I was a little child, there was always a lap to sit on. And when I was a teenager, there was always an ear. So, I learned to be vulnerable and not to feel embarrassed about that. I think when you allow yourself to be vulnerable, you can connect very readily to other people.

I have a very deep chasm of friendships, temporary and long-term, I get a lot of joy from my family, I now have four little grand-babies and my definition of a good week has changed. I have been accused of being a workaholic, particularly by my husband (laughs), but it’s not ‘work’, what I do. What I do is joyful play. The world is endlessly fascinating and full of undiscovered treasures, usually in people, but my new definition of a grand week is if I get to give one bath to one little grand-baby. So, wherever I am, I always try to get home to have at least one weekend day to give a bath.

I think my spirituality is through relationships with others. I don’t have a formal spirituality. I grew up in a convent school. I guess I had very traditional religion as a child. Every time I left my home, one of my grandparents – my maternal and paternal grandmothers lived with us – would bless me with holy water and say, “Jesus, Joseph and Mary, we pray be with us always on this day.” So, I got a kiss and was blessed. I mean, how could you go wrong (laughs)! I don’t have that formally, but I have the essence of it. I have in my heart all the good feelings that came from that nurturing, which had a brand. I’m a ‘no-name’ now. I’ve lost my ‘brand’ but I’m quite happy for that as I can fit in with anyone. I can fit in with a Sufi experience and I can enjoy and appreciate that. I have good friends who are Muslim, my husband’s Jewish, I ran a Jewish home, I can do Easter and Passover, and I think it’s all grand. It’s a picnic, a buffet (laughs).

We are all the same

Students at the university, they would come to our house for Sunday dinner. Then my dad, Sunday mornings, would take one of us to visit people who were in hospital, elderly people who had nobody to visit them because Newfoundland is an island and there wasn’t a highway to connect you. So, if you came from far away to the hospital in St John’s, you had no-one come and visit you. It was a good chance for me to hang out with my dad so I’d often go and my dad would say, “Now Skipper.” They called all the elderly men at home ‘Skipper’ because it was a fishing society and ‘Skipper’ was a term of endearment. So, I remember my dad would say, “Now Skipper, would you like me to pray with you, or would you like me to recite?” He could recite Shakespeare. “Or would you like the little one to sing a song?” So they always said they would like the little one to sing a song. You know, I would hide behind the charts. I was a shy child so I would hide behind the charts at the bottom of the bed, the wrought iron bed, and sing the song to the Skipper. But I think what it really showed me is that, in the world, were all the same. We’re old or we’re young.

Then my mother would take me to deliver food and coal and clothing to people who didn’t have it. She’d pack up a couple of us in the car and she used to collect clothes for people, and coal, because in those days coal was the main way that we heated the house. We would go and deliver it to people who normally had a lot of children, you know we had very big families then. She would be so respectful; she would stay and have a cup of tea with the lady of the house. No matter what the squalor, no matter how dirty the dishes, she would stay and have a cup of tea. So, if you were the child who was there, you would stay and have a cup of tea. I just remember the one time I turned the cup sideways, I’m right-handed so I turned the cup sideways because inside, before the lady made the tea, the cup was very stained. You know, tea stains cups, it doesn’t mean it was dirty, but I guess I was being judgmental. So, I was eight and I turned the cup around. Well, I got into the car afterwards, “And Missy-moo,” says my mother, “What makes you think that you’re better? What makes you think your germs are better? Do you know how insulting that was?”

So, I thought I’d been very quiet (laughs), but her point was that we are all a step away from trouble and that it doesn’t make you less human because you’re poor. And it doesn’t make you less human because you’re sick or you’re old or you’re in jail. Why are you in jail? Because something bad happened when you were a kid and you got in a bad trajectory, right?

So, I think I never suffered, but I think I saw life much bigger than most children see life. I had a comfort level working in prisons when I was older, you know. After school, I used to volunteer with the women prisoners, played crazy eight card game with them. I could go into anybody’s home and feel comfortable because they were just like me, except different in their luck. So, my whole strategy in Roots of Empathy is a bit different. You should see the business schools fall about in gales of laughter when I tell them what my strategy is, because we’ve been very successful, you know, with no long-term strategic plans. I call my strategy ‘strategic serendipity’ – that good stuff happens, go with it. Or, if good stuff looks good and you have a sneaking suspicion it’s not, don’t go with it. It’s not in any business school, but it works for me because what I have is a very good gut. I know a good person. I can’t tell you how I know that, but I can tell you there’s a lot of good people here, in this Spirit of Humanity [Forum].

Empathy cannot be taught

Q: What you describe sounds so much like respecting the individual’s feelings and noticing them, instead of it being education for the sake of the establishment.

A: Yes, and what are the ultimate goals of education? If it’s to produce architects, engineers, doctors and the like, if they are without humanity, they won’t do a good job. Is it to produce moral human beings who are ready to contribute to life, and who can be mutually respectful and have the capacity to care? The ethic of care is so overlooked and, when I talk about empathy, there’s two pieces to empathy. There’s ‘cognitive’ empathy which is perspective-taking and that’s the first stage of any conflict resolution. If you don’t have that, forget it. Forget peace in the Middle East. But if you don’t have the other aspect of empathy with is the ‘affective’, the human part, which is our emotions, if you don’t have that, you don’t really have empathy at all. With cognitive empathy you can be a sociopath, you have a skill where you can take the perspective, but if you don’t have the ethic of care, it could be a destructive thing. So many people define empathy as just cognitive empathy, but our definition of empathy is both affective and cognitive together, and very often confused with compassion and sympathy. Sympathy is uni-dimensional, it’s the ability to feel sorry.

Everybody thinks you can teach empathy. You can’t teach empathy; you can’t teach kindness. It’s caught, not taught. If you are in relationship with people who demonstrate empathy without saying, :Now this is empathic behaviour,” but who are just empathic, if you see examples of kindness in people you love, that’s how we develop these positive things.

You know, there are so many ridiculous things like a flash card for empathy or, “We’re going to talk about empathy this week.” That’s totally meaningless. It’s better than nothing, I suppose. But the big things in life are not developed through instruction, it’s construction – meaningful human construction, not instruction. In fact, there’s very little in life we learn through instruction. It’s only the higher-level things and, basically, those you could probably learn on your own. But if you can’t be with someone and learn from someone, you can’t really be a constructive, contributing human being.

WATCH Mary Gordon speak at the 4th SoH Forum
(It is the whole panel, Mary starts at 59 minutes)

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