This post is modified from a lesson for one of my classes at Ocean Seminary College. I received a lovely compliment on it from one of my fellow students and given the current contentious political climate, I felt like it might be a good time to share it here. The assignment was to consider empathy in the broader social context and how such empathy might impact social barriers.
“I have been reflecting recently that it is a lot easier to love another person than it is to trust that person. I feel compassion for people I have never met. You can have compassion for me without trusting me. Empathy and compassion are the foundation of morality and of our ability to live together.” –UU President Peter Morales in UU World magazine
Morales goes on to explain that compassion and love alone are not enough, you have to act. I think this is the core. If larger social environments were to act with empathy and compassion as the root, we would see a peaceful and harmonious world. When I was an undergraduate, I took a social psychology class and had a brief disagreement with the professor who stated that human society/relationships were based on competition as the defining feature. I said I thought that cooperation was more important—witness things like traffic and how almost everyone cooperates by following the laws. Or, with trash, and how we have a whole (albeit flawed and environmentally damaging) cooperative system of dealing with it—i.e. you pay and some guys come and pick it up for you. So on and so forth. He was adamant that I was wrong and so I yielded—he was the professor after all and I couldn’t “compete” with that!—however, it has always lingered with me and I still think cooperation trumps competitiveness if we’re thinking of the glue that holds human communities together. (Maybe it was just my secret thealogical/partnership model orientation peeking its head above the surface of my consciousness.)
I thought of this example again when I was considering empathy in the broader social context. I do NOT think it is unrealistic, naïve, or idealistic to think that we have the potential to create a world in which empathy and compassion form the basis of social operations at the community and national level. On the surface, it might sound naïve, but I believe we already have a social structure with cooperation as a root, why not add empathy too? The motives for cooperating might be selfish (i.e. I’ll stay on my side of the road rather than swerving all over because someone else might hit me), but the fact remains that many of our day-to-day social operations are founded in our human ability to cooperate with each other in our very large social context. Without cooperation it just wouldn’t work. I’m amazed by how our financial system works and our government works (such as it is) and our school system works, because billions of people have agreed to cooperate with each other in this way—the cooperation is often below the conscious level and these systems are FAR from perfect, but they continue to function and I assert that at a basic level the larger social environment functions on a basis of cooperation. I believe empathy and compassion could possibly become this “unconscious” and default as well and that we would then have a basic ethic of care as the foundation of human behavior and society. I’m not sure I’m fully making myself clear in this—it was making sense in my head, but is difficult to articulate fully. My basic thought process is that, we’ve got one already, why not the other…
I also thought of this quote: “When you grow, care for, cook, and eat a vegetable, you become emotionally attached to that vegetable for life. You eat with your heart, not with your mind.” –Liz Snyder (quoted in “Home Grown: Helping Your Child Develop a Love of Gardening” in Natural Life Magazine, May/June 2011). While this is about vegetables, I think we could say the same about animals and also about people. The direct relationship and connection is the key. I really do feel like the relational context of our lives is the fundamental core of the human experience. We cannot not be in relationship to the things around us, not just in terms of other humans, but plants, trees and animals. We are even in relationship with the sun, the wind, and the rain. And, the net that holds the whole, is what I name as Goddess/Divinity. Everything is interconnected and does not exist without connection/relationship. Connection is strength, not weakness, and it is central. Goddess ethics are “discovered within the web of life” rather than imposed from without. If we acted with our hearts and with love rather than with minds and logic and an ethic of care underlaid our beliefs, actions, and social structures, the overall functioning of society would change for the better.
In an article called 3 Surprises About Change in Experience Life magazine, author Chip Heath notes:
“We are frequently blind to the power of situations…people have a systemic tendency to ignore the situational forces that shape other people’s behavior…[this is referred to as] ‘Fundamental Attribution Error.’ The error lies in our inclination to attribute people’s behavior to the way they are rather than to the situation they’re in. But many times it is the situation–not the person–that is causing the trouble. Change your situation and you are better equipped to change your behavior.”
Shifting the environment, creates individual change. And, individual change has the potential to create change at the environmental level. I’m a systems thinker and just as people are constantly being impacted by a network of larger systems, people are constantly impacting systems and making changes within them…