Sources of empathy

Blooming plum trees + freshly mowed orchard floor = pretty spring sight.

Blooming plum trees + freshly mowed orchard floor = pretty spring sight.

Along with many Americans, Casey and I have been playing closer attention to politics in the last year than we did in prior years. I’m sure we would have benefited from closer attention to such things earlier, but for us the last decade was very much focused on farming and parenting. And, now it feels as though there is a lot to pay attention to as well.

As I do listen more closely, I have been struck by what is perhaps my own naiveté as I find myself astonished to learn that there are grown adults — people who function in the world and even hold important positions — who seem to lack empathy. The ability to imagine someone else’s experience is something that I’ve always taken to be An Important Life Skill. Empathy allows us to practice other Important Life Skills, such as compassion, forgiveness, and charity. Some people seem to be born naturally empathetic; and others learn through the course of experiences (which can often be painful but important ways to learn!). But, apparently, some people grow up without learning. Or, at times, choose not to extend themselves that way.

As an example, in a recent public forum, an elected official expressed his confusion about why he was able to graduate from college in four years without debt whereas so many cannot. Folks, I’m sure you and I both could think of a thousand and one reasons why his experience doesn’t translate exactly for every other person in the wider community, but what was more striking was that he didn’t seem to see those reasons (or chose not to anyway). He couldn’t imagine the factors that would lead a different individual (in a different era!) to have a different set of outcomes from what seems on the surface to be the “same” situation.

My shock at this revelation (“responsible adults who lack empathy!”) has led me to ponder the nature of empathy further and wonder: Where does empathy come from? How do we learn it?

My first answer comes from right outside the door. How many times have I waxed poetic in these newsletters about Casey and my love of the natural world? That this love is what led us to farming? Many people have written at length about the importance for humans to engage with the world with wonder. Wonder is that awe-filled experience of watching turkey vultures dance above our heads against a clear blue sky. Or, watching a dark thunderstorm cloud roll across the horizon. Or, witnessing the amazing circling of newts as they mate in ponds. Or, listening to the music of wind blowing through an aspen grove. Wonder is that moment when we feel the joy of stepping outside of our own experience to witness the experience of a very different kind of being in this world. Even though most of us would consider empathy a human trait, I believe that regularly experiencing wonder in the natural world is perhaps our most basic level learning of empathy, of understanding that things, forces, causes, and beings exist outside of me. Rachel Carson even wrote an entire book about the importance of wonder in child development; she (and I) would say that we need direct experience with nature in order to be fully human.

Next? I believe that we learn empathy through my other great love: story. If we are defined by anything as humans, I believe it is our need to understand the world through narrative and story-telling. We have a compulsion to tell and hear stories, and I believe that we learn the best through stories. Good, living stories help extend this experience of stepping outside of ourselves as we find ourselves so easily sucked into other people’s experiences. While listening to or reading a moving story, we can cry, laugh, weep, rejoice over experiences that are not our own — but in those moments they feel like they are our own. And in that act of engaging in story, we can learn about experiences that we’ve never had. Experiences that our neighbors have had, and we can begin to learn that our own experience of the world is limited. The best stories are ultimately so humbling in the way they extend our mind beyond what we know first-hand. They help us with that hard task of imagining what others might think, feel, experience.

As a homeschooling parent, these two points sum up most of what we try to do in our learning life together: spend as much time as possible experiencing wonder outside and reading really good stories. I have observed, too, that the stories we choose matter. Although we may find ourselves sucked into stories of all kinds, not all stories are edifying. And perhaps this is part of how individuals can (apparently!) grow to adulthood without learning how to practice empathy. Some stories don’t ask the reader or listener to enter a place of humility but instead can continually reinforce the reader’s own experience as the only true thing. This is why for the children (and for myself), I seek out stories that ask us to stretch our imaginations and learn about other people.

This week has also put one of the great stories in the center of our family’s life. It is Holy Week in the Christian church — the days leading up to Easter. This is a time in the Christian tradition when we remember again the final days of Jesus’s life as it is recounted in the Gospel stories — culminating in his crucifixion on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter Sunday.

In the liturgical tradition, the whole week is loaded with story telling, and much of it focuses on Jesus’s experiences of suffering in his final days: his weeping in the garden of Gethsemane, his betrayal by a close friend, his public humiliation, his subjection to torture, his very painful death, and his despair. Every year, the stories are read — often dramatically — and in many churches congregants are asked to participate in the readings, including even the hard part where the crowd yells: “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Christians participating in these services are asked every single year to imagine so many parts of the suffering in the story — to imagine Jesus’s suffering and to also imagine their own culpability in his suffering (and by extension the suffering of people throughout history and around the world). It can be a hard week of empathy as Christians enter these dark places where humanity’s suffering is revealed, along with our role in it.

But there is another side to empathy in this story as well. Because according to the Christian story, as it is told through the New Testament and church tradition, Jesus’s sufferings are God empathizing with humanity. As the story goes, the creator God didn’t just love creation enough to simply imagine what kind of suffering humans experience, that same God became human — fully, painfully human! Inherent in this story is the truth that empathy and love are critically linked — on the cosmic as well as the human scale.

Now, I don’t want to end this newsletter on some kind of high horse about my own virtues. Even though I find myself surprised at statements and declarations (and often even policies) that seem to lack basic empathy, I also know that empathy — and all those virtues that flow from it — is actually a really hard thing to keep at the center of our interactions with other people!!!! How much easier and more comfortable is it to see our own experience as the one true one? It is so much easier then to judge other people for their failings and to feel righteous about our successes and so on and so forth. Goodness, I feel these challenges every day, and Holy Week itself is a yearly reminder of how painful it can be to actually engage in real empathy and compassion.

But a few years ago, I really embraced the language of “practice.” People talk about a “spiritual/religious practice,” and it finally clicked for me that there is a reason why the word is practice. It’s not just because it’s something we do regularly, it’s because we are constantly practicing at all of it. We set our eyes on something virtuous (which will vary from person to person!), and we practice the art of always walking in that direction — never expecting to arrive but knowing that it is only in the continually practice that we can achieve anything close to our goal. Empathy is certainly something I am always walking toward and practicing. Time spent in nature, engaging with stories, and participating in a Christian community and the Christian tradition are keys for me (in fact, on that last note, I think it is the empathy at the core of the Christian story that always feels so radical to me — and so personally challenging too!).

Perhaps you have a different tradition that inspires you. Or perhaps different virtues you aim for. Perhaps that man at that public meeting has different virtues that he’s aiming for too. And, even if we do all take the time to imagine another person’s situation and feel the pain of it doesn’t even mean we’ll come up with the same solutions for fixing suffering! Feeling compassion is one thing; translating compassion into complicated things like policies and laws is a whole other set of challenges — so I have to give politicians a lot of slack on this one too. They’re doing tricky work, and I certainly don’t have answers for everyone! But, my goodness, as the population on this planet grows and grows, I do pray that more and more of us can continue to grow in our ability to think beyond ourselves and our own experiences — to appreciate all the other intelligent creatures we share this planet with already (both the human and non-human beings). Perhaps we can find answers together eventually.

Either way, I find that, for myself, the more I can let myself feel and imagine and listen to those other experiences, the more I grow in love for all of it — the swirling, awesome chaos that is our world.

And, also, I hope you enjoy this week’s vegetables too!

Your farmers, Katie & Casey Kulla

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CSA payment due by April 27! I emailed CSA statements to everyone this week with a reminder that your second payment is due to us by Thursday, April 27. You can mail a check to us at: Oakhill Organics, P.O. Box 1698, McMinnville OR 97128. Or bring cash or check to pick-up! If you have any questions about your account or balance due, please check in with me. Thanks so much!

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Spring concert! Folks may know that I (along with many current and former CSA members) sing with the McMinnville Women’s Choir. You are invited to join us for our upcoming Spring concert on Sunday, May 7 at 4 pm at McMinnville’s First Baptist Church. As always, we have a fun and diverse line up of songs from many musical traditions, different countries, and in varying styles (with body percussion!). Tickets are $8 if purchased in advance at Oregon Stationers. (In fact, this newsletter got written later than usual because I was busy practicing singing with other choir members at an extra rehearsal this evening!)

concert~ ~ ~

Meet this week’s vegetables:

  • Apples
  • Radishes
  • Turnips
  • Seasonal salad mix
  • Kale
  • Cabbage
  • Marina di Chioggia winter squash
  • Sunchokes
  • Beets
  • Potatoes
  • Green onions
  • Green garlic
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2 Responses to Sources of empathy

  1. Nadya says:

    I love your ruminations on empathy. I appreciate your observation that connection with the natural world and a love of story help us engage, and develop empathy.
    I’m engaged in my art teacher Shiloh Sophia’s year long painting process, Red Madonna, with this year’s theme “Sacred Path.” This is a lovely, ecumenical community, led by half a dozen women from several backgrounds. Teachings from the Hebrew traditions provide a rich seed bed for more familiar (to me) Christian stories, and all with curiosity about the roles of the women, and following cycles of the moon.
    Your words weave beautifully, this Pascal season. Blessings

  2. Katie says:

    Thank you Nadya!

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