Exercising the empathic muscles – artfully

Aditi Rao

We have all heard that tired definition of empathy: the ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes, perhaps even walk a mile in them. While this might be a useful entry point into discussions about empathy, the metaphor is in desperate need of extension and nuance. For one, we each have different feet, so simply stepping into someone else’s shoes is no indication of how they experience those shoes. Further, the definition forgets that walking takes place in a physical context; even a deep familiarity with the shoe does not give us any useful information unless we know the ground on which it walks (after all, a pair of flip flops on the beach would experience things differently than on a snowy mountain hike). But perhaps the deepest problem with this definition is that it still keeps the “I” – the person who has decided to put on someone else’s shoes – at the center of the conversation while empathy is precisely about de-centering the “I” in favour of other imaginings and experiences of the world.

Thus, if we want to strengthen our students’ empathic muscles (I use the word muscle to suggest that the more we consciously cultivate empathy, the stronger our empathic abilities grow), we have to empower them with more than just a self-centered questioning about how they would feel in a given situation. We must teach them to be curious about the original wearer of the shoe, about her/his specific quirks and build, and equally, we must help them learn about the context in which this “other” operates. And then we must be able to unleash their imaginations, support them in an informed imagining of other lives that creates equal space for feelings, dreams, and experiences. The arts can play a unique role in this process of helping us, students and teachers alike, inhabit other worlds. Stories, in particular, whatever the medium of their telling, have a way of welcoming us into a range of experiences unmediated by constraints like familiarity or rationality.

aditi-1 The first gift that the arts offer us on this journey is that of curiosity. Most of us have probably experienced how stories about places or periods of time with which we are unfamiliar spur us onto new questions, perhaps to a quick google search or a more extended library visit. I remember how, even when I was a child, the Panchatantra tales made me curious about the lives of monkeys and crocodiles. Today, as a teacher, I use story as an opening into asking questions about the world. When I teach creative writing, I spend a lot of time encouraging students to come up with lists of questions that the story elicits for them. They may be questions about how a character feels, why their world is set in a particular way, why the author chose a particular genre, how the story links back to their own lives, what happens next. The point is not necessarily for students to answer these questions, only to ask them, repeatedly.

Once this questioning has become a habit, you can take this one step further. Create assignments around asking questions in the world. Perhaps your fourth-grade students need to write about their neighbour’s favorite foods instead of their own; encourage them to go across and ring the doorbell. Perhaps your eighth-grader will need to ask a grandparent about their childhood dreams and paint a dreamscape in response. Perhaps your eleventh grader will visit a school or organization that works with a very different demographic group from their own and write a short biography of someone they interview there. When you give students assignments that begin from questions about people unlike themselves, and which then culminate in creative projects for which the student must also look inwards, you encourage them to become curious about the world and how they relate to it. In doing so, you sow that first seed from which empathy grows.

It is of course crucial that we don’t stop at a question, that we encourage students to research the contexts within which the people they are trying to understand operate. In order to do this, we must be prepared to have difficult conversations with our students, must talk about realities like gender or caste or disability, all of which influence the worlds that those shoes walk through. The role of the arts here can be to take some of these large ideas and make them concrete through image or story, particularly to take the five senses into account. I was once facilitating a group of teenagers from diverse backgrounds in a creative writing workshop where we used a five-senses poetry prompt around “home” as a way for participants to introduce themselves to the group. In this particular group, one boy described home as “kebabs and bomb blasts”; the group laughed uncomfortably. He shrugged and told them he was an Afghan refugee in Delhi; he remembered Kabul by its bombs and its kebabs. In that moment, he opened a window for them to enter his memories of home that were simultaneously violent and deeply missed. In that one image, he created an opening for understanding, without which empathy is impossible.

And yet, information will only take us so far. Empathy, after all, implies an emotional resonance, and in many ways there are no shortcuts to this. We will only “get” others emotionally to the degree that we become comfortable with emotion itself, something that our classrooms in general do not prepare us for. As art teachers, we must create spaces safe enough for students to express all of themselves, including their most vulnerable stories and feelings. We must not insist that students write chirpy poems about spring when they are grappling with their parents’ divorce; we must meet our students where they are and encourage them to open up there. The Internet is full of trust building games and exercises that can become a critical investment in creating safe spaces for our students. Once such spaces have been built, they can offer students the ability to explore and name their own emotions, regardless of artistic medium, and learn both to share and to listen. Much of this will begin from our ability as teachers to take risks and model emotional disclosure; I always do every exercise I assign my students, and I never ask them to take greater emotional risks than I take. I am regularly amazed at their ability to absorb and empathize with me, and then with each other, as we share our own worlds and feelings with each other.

aditi-2 Finally, once we have done the groundwork of asking questions, seeking information, responding imaginatively, and sharing and listening to feelings, there is nothing that will build empathy quite as powerfully as actually inhabiting each other’s stories. I have found theatre to be a powerful medium for this. In a the theatre based youth program I run, we create a final production based on the stories in the room, but we make sure that no one plays their own parts. One of my most powerful memories from this space is of our very first play, wherein one narrative was about two dalit students who get bullied off the playground by dominant caste youth. For a while, the scene was just falling flat, although none of us could pinpoint why, until I turned to one of the boys who had originally told this story and asked for help. The two dalit students in the room walked up to their peers who were acting their parts and slowly began to show them what one’s body would look like when one is being bullied: they got one actor to slouch her shoulders, another to lower her eyes; they told them that they could express anger to each other but not to the bullies; they got them to shrink a little. The effect was powerful. Not only did the scene come alive but suddenly two students got a chance to inhabit an experience that would never be theirs in everyday life. Later one of those actors expressed a deeply felt dismay at how her private school education had taught her that casteism was abolished in 1950. In that mix of information and experience, feeling and body, context and care, a new possibility of empathy was born.

People often think of the arts as being primarily about expression. I disagree. I think the arts are primarily about listening; I believe that a deep and sustained attention to the world precludes any authentic expression of it. If we can teach our children to be artists in this genuine sense, paying attention to the world, asking questions of it, seeking out the information they need, and working their own and others’ feelings and experiences, we might be well on our way to a more empathetic generation.

The author is a writer, educator, and dreamer. She worked extensively in the fields of youth development and peace education before founding Tasawwur, an arts-for-social-change program for teenagers. She is also a widely published poet and has won several awards for her writing. She currently lives between Delhi and Shimla. For more, please visit http://aditirao.net.

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