The empathy moment

On the first day of our EDiCT (Empathy Dynamics in Conflict Transformation) workshop we watched a video from Nepal. It told the story of a young girl who, against all odds is going to school. She has to walk an hour to get to the school. Her quiet voice told about her home situation – her mother with 4 little children to look after, who works in the fields, and her father who is a labourer. We saw her playing with and caring for the little children, climbing trees to chop leaves for the goats to eat, washing her face under the pump to get ready to go to the school, cooking over the fire. She spoke about her determination to get an education and we saw the adult education class where she had started, alongside much older women who had helped to persuade her parents that education is important.

After watching, we started to talk about our own reactions and where we had felt ourselves doing empathy with the girl – not just feeling interested in her life, as when watching a documentary, or feeling sympathy for her struggles, but that “feeling into” the life of another that characterises empathy.

For me, empathy happened when I watched her wetting her hair and tying it back, washing her face with what my gran would have called ‘a lick and a promise’. For one Nepali colleague, the empathy moment came when he watched her climb a tall tree with a knife in one hand to cut leaves – he remembered doing this as a child and the danger involved. The other Nepali colleague was affected by seeing the girl helping her mother – it recalled her own childhood. The research assistant had an empathy moment watching her with her little sister – it reminded him of holding his own niece.

And so it went on around the table. Each of us had experienced empathy. For each of us  empathy happened at a different moment as the film triggered a personal memory, often of a physical experience. Empathy used our embodied memories. Individually, empathy was constrained by the limits of our individual experience, but the film was so powerful because it offered so many different opportunities for empathy.

We hope to make the video available soon, with some questions to prompt thinking and discussion, as part of the training materials we’re working on. Meanwhile, if you notice a moment of empathy happening, let us know what prompted it!




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