From Apathy to Empathy, and Beyond

fireWill you dare to feel?

This morning, I spent some time looking at Global Forest Watch’s maps of deforestation. Witnessing where trees are being chopped down. Identifying the last stretches of dark green, the intact forest landscapes cloaked in magic and mystery that we have not reached yet. Spotting hundreds of active forest fires. Exploring land uses and concessions without and within protected areas.

Sobering statistics flash by. 230 million hectares of tree cover have been lost since the year 2000. Images of smoke and flames. The acute knowledge that we are relentlessly cutting into our very lungs.

And yet, somehow, when we gaze into the mass of information provided through the virtual world, our senses become blunted. After all, forests still cover 30 percent of the landmass of the planet. If we can survive on one lung instead of two, why worry?

And so, we move on. To the next piece of news. Bad news. Images of polar bears desperately clinging to a lone piece of drifting ice. Coral reefs bleached into oblivion. Bloodied shark fins hanging on a line. An expert suggesting we have already entered the 6th great extinction. Crumbled buildings and wide-eyed children staring in disbelief at the crude suffering of their lives. Men about to have their throats sliced. And I could go on, and on.

How is it possible to remain sane amongst such suffering? The answer is simple: Denial.

It is not a denial of the facts. It’s just that we don’t let them penetrate into our flesh and bones. They remain at a mental level. We operate with only one aspect of our existence, convincing ourselves that it’s the only one that exists. We shut everything else down, especially the feminine aspects of our being, such as our capacity for empathy. Then, we slip into apathy, severed from the juicy life in our bodies, frozen by the belief that the world is too complex, its problems too great, and that we are powerless in the face of it all.

But what would happen if we really felt in our heart and bones what is occurring in this world? If we removed the unconscious protective barriers we have built around ourselves? If we stepped from denial into empathy? If we truly opened up and let it all in…?

Those of us who have been endowed with an innate ability for radical empathy know that when you become porous to the world, and tune into the lives and feelings of everyone around you, it is not only overwhelming, it can be utterly unbearable.

Unless… we go one step further.

Empathy is not enough. But it is the starting point. There is more. It is a more that stems from our coming into wholeness, embracing our bottomless capacity for knowing the world through our bodies, spreading our roots into the soil and connecting with life in all its forms, anchored in the felt experience that we are all one and the same.

And from there, we can overcome our fear of feeling the pain of the world, and step into empowered action in service to Life.

  3 comments for “From Apathy to Empathy, and Beyond

  1. Andrea
    September 8, 2014 at 11:13

    I think you are right Nicole: denial can help with the overwhelming suffering around us. I believe that the real emphatic people move to action naturally, as you just can do otherwise. But how do you take people out of denial? How do you get people empathic??? Is empathy something you can acquire? I’m still wondering about it all as if there is a way, then that can be one great action in service to Life!

  2. Nicole
    September 8, 2014 at 14:43

    Thanks for your comment. I think the questions you are asking are key! In my view, we are naturally empathic. It is in our nature. But we spend most of our lives in our minds, having been educated to split ourselves away from our bodies, and what should come naturally, like empathy and intuition, etc… are blocked. In my opinion, moving away from denial requires inviting people to connect with their bodies, and getting unstuck from compulsive escape into “thinking-mode”… TreeSisters has developed a really interesting map that deals exactly with that topic, and they have been working with groups of women to go through this transition experientially. You can see the framework here (with denial in the shadow map):

    • Andrea
      September 8, 2014 at 15:11

      Thanks a lot Nicole for your kind words and sharing! I’m quite puzzled by this for a while now, as I get to ask myself almost daily what happened with human empathy. I guess faced with the horrors of war, destruction, loss…we all get empathic to different degrees but in my opinion empathy starts with putting yourself in the other one’s shoes, even if it means you next door neighbor . It seems to be a tough exercise for some so I started wondering if it really is natural… but I can see very well your point, none of us in the western world escaped our “wining” upbringing.

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