Thinking Together

Empathy Building, Part 3

This week is the third and final installment in a three-part series on empathy building. I’ve been thinking again through some of the ideas I shared in the book Designing for Empathy in anticipation of this upcoming conference. While my contribution to the book concentrated on ideas derived directly from the tap dance world, here I’ve gone a little further. In part one, we found that searching for common context may help us shift the space that otherwise would divide us. In part two, how directing our listening can allow us to discover visions of life well beyond our current field of view. Finally, for part three, I’ll share some thoughts on what it means to think together.

Our actions are governed by many things – our will to do what is good, our wants and desires, physical memory and habits, what we believe is real, our vision of the good life, who we think is a good person, and how to become a good person. These are all at play. Sometimes they are at odds with each other and reality, misaligned in some way, and our lived experience is confused. Sometimes they all align, and our lived experience clarifies.

Human beings are making choices and acting upon our ideas all the time. Those choices and actions interact communally. Even our personalities interact communally. None of these ideas or frameworks can really be thought of in isolation. As I think about empathy building as a communal activity, I am drawn to the idea of communal imagination. Sometimes the word imagination conjures up images of the fantastic, unreal, and impossible. Our imagination rather can be the place in which we envision things that are very real and possible, although still possibly fantastic. They just aren’t visible yet. The healing of a broken relationship to full reconciliation, for instance. Or the experiencing of peace and stillness for the troubled and agitated soul. Cultivating our imagination empowers our choices and actions towards such things – especially when we are confronted with the real difficulty of doing them.

As we think about the idea of cultivating our individual imaginations, we might discover that we already do this. As I mentioned in part one, we all already have ideas of right/wrong, good/evil, and how things are supposed to work. We work by them and work them out through our actions. Our minds are where we cultivate these ideas. We think through the what if’s and how’s. We envision outcomes.

I also mentioned the challenge that occurs when disparate ideas in those areas collide. What happens when two or more people who have differing ideas on what is good or evil act in concert? A quick look around the world can show examples. I’m sure you can find an example in your own life. However, when I talk about communal imagination here, I’m not talking about envisioning a thing to achieve (that is, a particular outcome). I’m talking about envisioning a common point of reference (that is, a vision that governs our actions).

In tap dance land the common point of reference is “time.” As we dance, we relate to each other through a common envisioning and agreement upon how time has been organized. You might see a musician tap their foot to the beat. They are embodying “time” to help keep track of where it is, and where they are in relationship to it. This common point of reference allows everyone who is playing to do so in concert. We don’t have to be doing the same thing, but everything we do is guided by the same point of reference. We know and agree to a common structure.

We all do this to some degree. There is a global envisioning and agreement upon the organization of time into years, months, days, hours, and minutes. As we navigate schedules many of us share the common points of reference of the calendar and the clock. There are some who go by different calendars, or don’t agree with the machinations of the clock. But by and large, our ability to do work together today is navigated by these common points of reference. It’s important to note here that the clock and the calendar do not dictate in any way what will be happening. They just facilitate the ability for something to happen in concert.

Now, imagine for a moment, going through your day without access to the clock or a calendar. I suspect you might feel lost at first. I know I have. How many appointments, deadlines, or celebrations might we miss? I was curious about this. I had seen the tap dancer Jimmy Slyde work to internalize the clock. I hadn’t known anyone to do it with the calendar. I tried to do both. I had some success with the clock and I’ve since given up on the calendar. In experimenting with this I realized that somethings could be internalized or envisioned more easily than others. Deeper still I learned that I could forgo the idea of the clock and the calendar all together when they weren’t required for coordinating others. My sense of time shifted. A worthwhile experiment.

Let’s make a different shift. The communal envisioning of time allows dancers or workers to do things in a coordinated if not synchronized manner. We can dance in unison, play all the notes at the right time, meet our appointments and deadlines, and coordinate our gatherings. What then might we have to communally envision to change the way in which we are living? To move from division to unity, from strife to ease, or from war to peace?

I would offer that the thing which we must envision is not a series of actions, but rather a kind of personality. A character that develops freedom and creativity in our choices to do good. Something that cultivates a sense of what is good so deep and rich that we become willing to shift our physical memory and habits towards it. A personality that resonates with the experience of the good life and is built upon what it means to be a good person. What if that kind of personality was a communal point of reference, and agreed upon?

As I write I realize that this idea of a communal envisioning of a personality is part of what drives celebrity culture, cult culture, and the kind of leadership that can elevate the persona of the leader above the greater good. Of course, these can be quite destructive. But we are somehow predisposed to follow a personality into the good life. What I’m thinking of here is a personality that is greater than the fallibility of any single human. One that can model the good life, while having compassion for our current plight (whatever that might be) and the journey we find ourselves on.

Next week I plan on thinking through some of the propositions that I’ve encountered in this regard more thoroughly. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this:

Engaging in communal imagination is difficult. It takes time, and a soft touch to navigate the natural resistance that comes up when change is in the air. Individually, our minds are bombarded daily with imagery, ideas, propositions, and responsibilities. We are often part of multiple communities (families, work, play groups, etc.), each possibly having a different communal imagination. We may feel pulled apart or engaged in a kind of switching of hats to accommodate each scenario. However, if we desire to move towards a good life together – to become really good people together – we need to begin practices that cultivate the imagination within ourselves and those we share life with. If we can think through what the good life and being a really good person mean together, the possibility for change towards goodness multiplies, and things (like the increase of empathy in relationships) just may begin to grow organically.