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Change from within requires empathy

Today’s society does not need isolated sympathy. It needs empathy; to feel the other by planting ourselves in their circumstances. To see what their eyes are seeing, hear what their ears are listening to, feel their fears and joys, successes and failures. Empathy is not a miracle, but a way to feel the world other than through ‘me and myself’. Love is all about empathy, visions, goals and strategies. Without empathy, it is a combination for conflict and violence. Present policy makers are devoid of empathy, asking for data, without being concerned about ‘feelings’.

Empathy means being that entity at the level of feeling and sensitivity. ‘I’ becomes that ‘river’, ‘bird’, or ‘child’! The difference can be seen in two statements; ‘A child has been murdered’ and ‘My child has been murdered’. We often read in news now, Child Raped and Killed! We read it and move on for meetings, workshops or any other work. Just think for a moment, you are not anyone else but you are the same child, who has been raped and killed! Leave yourself in a chair or in the bed and feel you are lying down on a flat surface and being raped.

You always introduce yourself with a name, place, work and identity. Let me request you to be what I narrate for a few moments. ‘An 8-year old child has been raped’. ‘My 8-year old child has been raped’. How are these two statements different? Your name is Ashna (name changed); you are an 8-year old girl from Kathua, Near Jammu. You used to graze your horse in nearby places and you were kidnapped while grazing your horse on 10 January 2018. You were taken to a Devsthan (a religious place) and sedated. You were raped by five persons multiple times for four days, while being kept unconscious. Initially, the local police tried to manipulate the crime. The gang of rapists decided Ashna now should be killed; but a police person says ‘wait, I want to rape her, before she is killed; and he rapes you.

When this incident came to light and police was going to file the charge sheet, fundamentalist rightwing religious groups tried to stop the police from filing it. A group of advocates also opposed any action against the culprits.

Now, decide what kind of a person you should be and what should be your role towards all children? In order to appreciate the difference, we need to put ourselves in a test or trial in different occasions; especially when you want to decide on your own role and steps. When I place myself in any such incidence or news, I am able to sensate the feelings as that child would do or her parents would feel the pain and agony. I am, accordingly, able to understand why violence must not be resorted to!

We often debate about corporal punishment, and hold that children should not be subjected to any punishment. Primarily, it’s a theoretical demand. Just be a child, who has been punished in front of a group of guests visiting your home, like getting scolded for not keeping your dress clean. How would you be feeling? At some time, think that you are a book. How do you feel on ‘becoming’ the book? Then, you will realise how you feel when a page is torn from you.

A Turkish idiom says, “If saying and telling is silver, listening is gold”. However, we often do not listen. We have not learned the techniques of listening without responding. We want to respond/add/contradict/oppose without listening attentively to the whole statement. Genuine listening needs empathy. For myself, the two acts of listening and preparing a response to the other person are not possible at the same time.

Many of us make use of the Facebook wall as our communication platform, because no one interrupts us while completing our full statement! These social media platforms are made artificially empathetic; they can read your messages, analyze them and feed you back with other more influential messages. Technology primarily does not interrupt you while you are expressing something; but it is preparing someone else to respond to your views and experiences.

Using this artificially empathetic platform, one Ubaid T. U., shared his own photograph on 22 February 2018 on Facebook. In this photograph, his half smiling face is visible and behind him there is a frail person with a disheveled beard, ruffled hair, open shirt and lips have marks of injury. He has dust on his body. His hands are tied with clothes.

That man was named Madhu, accused of stealing some rice other items from a retail grocery shop (the total value of which amounted to some Rs. 200/-). In response, a group of persons beat 30-year-old Madhu so severely that he died.

Belonging to the Kurumba tribal community from the most backward area of Attapadi in Kerala, Madhu’s mother, Malli says that Madhu had lost his father 10 years back. Since then, Madhu has been living in the forest. He was not comfortable living with the larger society. He had never threatened any one nor had he caused any kind of harm to anybody. Investigation also revealed that no complaint had ever been registered against Madhu. He was hungry; wasn’t he entitled to food and support? He broke a law, but did he actually break any law?

Anyways, complaints were being filed in Mukkali on theft from retail grocery shops, and some CCTV footage showed Madhu stealing some rice. A group of people started searching for him and caught him from the forest and inflicted punishment on him. The crowd turned itself into a Kangaroo Court, took the decision and punished him for flouting the rule of law. A crowd with smiling faces punished him and beat him to death, without knowing anything about him. The crowd did not feel who is Madhu, what is his history, and why did he steal rice.

Madhu was a human being. Empathy is a characteristic of the humane, and Madhu’s murder is a significant indicator that we are losing our basic human character. Empathy is different from compassion. In compassion, we will believe that ‘Madhu should not have been dealt with the way he was treated. It was unfortunate.’ Empathy is also different from emotionality. By being emotional, we will believe that, ‘We are also pained with the incident that occurred with Madhu. This incidence makes me cry.’ Empathy is different from kindness and passion. In kindness and passion, we will say, ‘Oh! His condition was so much pitiable. We should have helped him and talked with him with love and care.’ In empathy, we will ourselves become ‘Madhu’. In this situation, we seek to feel exactly the way Madhu felt. We will be able to feel the fear and dread as much as Madhu did. We will be able to hear the same heartbeats which Madhu felt while stealing and go through the same experience of pain and realise the same pain and shock that Madhu would have gone through in the last moments of his life.

Albert Einstein says that ‘peace cannot be achieved with power. It can be achieved only by experiencing it’.

Alfred Adler states, ‘Seeing through the eyes of the other person, hearing through the ears of others and feeling through others’ hearts is empathy’.

By doing so, we can realise as to how eyes see and heart feels and mind creates argument when one sees another human being carrying the basket of human excreta on his head and the society treats him as untouchable!

Empathy is critical in making the processes of relationships, arrangements and social change affirmative and assertive from a creative perspective. It may also facilitate you in sensing the importance of values in human existence. It will help “us” in understating each other in a “real-time” mode.

This question whether good qualities can be created and good behavior can be taught has remained unanswered since the times of Plato and Socrates. When a person becomes a doctor, he takes the Hippocratic oath as per his role that he will treat every ill person with compassion and uphold the ethical standards. It is expected that even this is possible only when he lets the element of empathy establish in his ‘self’. In fact, empathy is the stage that comes after those of love and compassion. In that situation of empathy, the help seeker and help provider do not remain two different entities; they become each other and develop a relationship by practicing empathy. If empathy is missing, can you allow a doctor to do an open heart surgery?

Our eco-system and the human body have a relationship founded on the depth of their mutually attractive and respective electrical magnetisms. If some upheaval has to occur, one of the two gets the signals. The monkey stops eating just before the Solar eclipse. The Chavi bird in Japan can sense the occurrence of earthquake and leaves its place hours before it happens. During the Tsunami in Andaman and Nicobar, the Jarwa, Great Andamanese, Sentinelese tribals remained safe because they had anticipated the natural calamity by understanding the movements and changes in air, sea and birds and had moved over to safer places.

The principle of co-existence between nature and human beings is very effective. It is not mere imagination that human society has been co-living with animals of forests since ages. And yet, present policies say there should be no human settlements in the forest, as it disturbs the wildlife. It is being argued that forest dwellers are the main threats to tigers and the forest, but mankind and wildlife complement each other. Through empathy, they can feel each other’s presence.

If we practice empathy with rivers, we will be able to appreciate that the river does not give water to us. Rather, the feeling will be that we take water from the river and then we will be deciding development polices more sensitively. The nature of rivers is to flow. However, we build dams on it. Had we felt like the river, and had we respected it accordingly, we would not have enslaved the river. Of course, this would have made some dent in our luxury and greed, but the lives of future generations would be assuredly safer.

Studies indicate that the nature of empathy can generally be felt from the age of two, when children hug us in the wake of fear or uneasiness and we kiss them to make them comfortable. Through this behavior, they feel reassured that we are there and that they need not fear anything. Then the children cuddle in the lap of their parents/guardians and become instinctively natural.

A study by Chicago University informs that children in the age group of 7 to 12 years understand the pain of others and feel so. They do not just hold the disposition of compassion or kindness. They rather feel the pain of poverty, deprivation or injury in themselves. And this feeling is not evoked just for some persons, it is felt for all.

In the subsequent age, our neighborhood, environment and rearing determine whether we shall remain empathetic in our nature or not. In fact, we have erased the element of empathy from our thoughts and feelings, given the kind of education system and the socio-economic-political web that we have built around ourselves.

This is the precise reason that we are not able to realise the impact of corruption and its consequent effect on humanity. If I remember that if I use low quality raw material in the construction of the bridge, the resultant collapse can kill other, innocent people. If I do not think of this, adulteration becomes easy. If I do remember what impact my acts would have on the river or the forest, then I would not make a policy endangering them. I will then think about alternative policies.

We are bringing about development by removing the factor of empathy from our behavior. We are teaching children to stay ahead and win in competitions right from childhood. We are giving them lessons that are devoid of empathy. In our education system, we do not teach children to reflect and ponder deeply about others around them and feel their experiences in themselves.

When the policy of competition is laid out, children do not realise that in this war of being ahead of others, they would be fighting against their own classmates and friends. Later, after learning all about cut throat competition, they don’t hesitate in harming their own parents or the near ones; because they have been taught to be ahead at any cost!

Just think over this fact. In India, there were 2113 cases of rapes of children were registered in the Year 2001. In year 2016, this number has swelled to 36022. The fact of the matter is that when the feeling of empathy wanes in human beings, they can neither understand relations nor law.

In fact, violence cannot be eliminated by fear of law or punishment alone. It rather requires a sense of empathy that is mandatory to be built in. As children are not learning empathy, there is an increase in crimes committed by adolescents. In 2016, 44171 adolescent children were arrested on one or the other count of crime.

In 2016, as many as 3737870 persons were arrested on account of different crimes. Amongst these, there were 3499986 persons (93.6 percent) who had committed crime for the first time! It means that they were not habitual offenders. Further, there were only 35608 persons who had committed crime for the third time. When we seek to have a vision to eradicate crime from our society, we will need to make a place to realise his feelings in his mind.

For a just and equal society, justice providers will have to be empathetic. This will make their decision more realistic; It will help the justice institutions to feel the intent behind the crime.

India’s Constitution carries the sense of empathy. However, if the Constitution would have been drafted today, it would have been without that sense; as religious and political fundamentalism does not allow the principals of system to be empathetic.

When the sense of empathy is emaciated, the individual takes on the character of murderer. Groups organising themselves and expanding the expanse of terror so as to achieve their political goals ‘are able to’ commit murders of children and rape of women because they cannot become those children and women to experience their feelings and realise the sense of their pain and agony. They have lost their capacity to do so.

They remain centered on ‘I’ and they are easily taught that it is fine for them to kill anyone as long as their goal is achieved! We need to ask whether we wish to achieve the goal of development by using wars and arms?

Whether it is socio-economic change or eco-system balance or peace in the world, every goal can be achieved, provided it is done through the sense of empathy! (Asian Human Rights Commission)


The writer works with Vikas Samvad and is a Social Researcher, Writer and an Ashoka Fellow.

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