Deep Empathy in Community

Submitted by Joe Schaeffer on July 15, 2015 - 5:55am
A sneak peek from "Living Community" by Joe Schaeffer

A student said to his Rabbi, I love you so much, Rabbi.  

The Rabbi responded, My son, do you know what hurts me?

And the student said, Rabbi, all I want to do is tell you how much I love you and you confuse me with irrelevant questions about hurt.

My question was neither confusing nor irrelevant, the Rabbi explained.

For if you do not know what hurts me, how can you love me?

Madeleine LEngle


I have had the honour of sitting in hundreds of story circles. During a circle, we pass a symbolic stone from person to person. When she is holding the stone, a person may say anything she wishes to say. It is her time. All others will be present, bearing witness as they sense the world from within her eyes.


Over and over I have heard people speak from such a deep place within, seeming to tap the very essence of their lives. I have come to understand the power of deep empathy in creating an environment that is safe from reprisal and, perhaps even more importantly, safe from the judgement of others.


I wonder if deep empathy is present at birth. Parents speak of the profound connection they feel with newborn babies. When they hold a newborn and feel joy, the newborn often registers a soft and palpable openness. The same thing happens with other emotions. When a parent feels upset or confused, for example, the newborn often fusses or cries.


Deep empathy is certainly a potential in human beings, perhaps as a product of Ernst Mayrs open pre-programming. He used the phrase to refer to a potential for some attribute not necessarily present at birth to become available during the life of an individual.


Most people are wary of being open and honest in our contemporary society. It can seem frighteningly risky to be vulnerable in a world based on illegitimate power and domination. One who shows feelings too openly is considered to be weak, immature, or at the very least, inappropriate.


All of which begs the question: How can people expect to be truly co-operative and creative with each other if they cannot and will not be open and honest with each other? And how can they be open and honest with each other if they are afraid to be vulnerable? If I let you know who I am, you might take advantage of me. Thats the culture we live in.


I imagine a world in which we can be vulnerable and clear. But that world is elusive today. An example: Suppose I have applied for a new position as manager in my company. After I do so another person comes along and applies for the same job. Now, I know that person would do the job better than me. So I go to the CEO and I tell him how qualified the other person is and suggest that I stand down. In the real world I could never do this. I would jeopardize my own position by appearing to lack confidence and commitment. Honesty is by no means the best policy all the time.