The Imagination of Empathy

A 14 year old boy working as a transvestite prostitute on the streets of Toronto.

A man convicted for aiding a plot to set explosives in an anti-government attack.

A woman in an abusive relationship whose family will disown her if she was to leave.

An eight grade student who is beat up behind the school because he is gay.

A young girl whose parents are dead from AIDS who is raising her siblings in poverty.

None of these stories are mine.

All of these stories are a part of me.

One is from a book of fiction that I read, two from other books, two are people who I know whose stories I have read and heard. Each one changed me, each one shaped me. The stories of other people continue to change and shape my life.

 I did my University under-grad degree in Theatre Arts. For the majority of my childhood and teen years I wanted to be an actor until I felt a strong call to work with youth. One of my favourite parts about theatre is working out the back story of a character that I was playing. Who are they? Where did they come from before this play/scene? Why do they say the things they say? React the ways they react? There are often things in the script that answer some of these questions but usually there is a lot of blank space that you get to fill in to create this person that you are embodying. One of the things that I love the most about this particular aspect of theatre is that you get to participate in a story that is not your own. What if my character did something horrible? What if my character is nothing like me? It becomes an opportunity to understand someone with a totally different story than myself. It stretches the imagination and gives an opportunity to walk in someone else’s shoes.

When I watch a film or a play I find myself often drawn to the villains. In particular, I want to see if a filmmaker and actor are able to make a villain more than just a villain and instead make them a person. It is much more frightening to me if I can understand where a villain is coming from, what their perspective is, how they might even feel like what they are doing is good, or even righteous. I, unlike many others, was not as taken by “The Joker” in The Dark Knight as many others were. The Joker is a sadistic, homicidal socio/psychopath, and while he certainly creates havoc for the other characters in the story, he is not a character one can easily relate to. “Magneto” in X-Men: The First Class however, was much more fascinating to me. I found myself at the end of the film wondering if I would have joined him myself. His experience with the Holocaust colliding with being a mutant who now the humans have tried to exterminate; he has lost his faith in humanities ability to coexist peacefully in the midst of diversity... it is a much more compelling and relatable. (That’s not even to say that I like one film better than the other, just a comparison in the villains.)

Being able to enter into someone else’s story is of incalculable value. To be able to expand beyond our own story and begin to understand where someone else is coming from. If we are unable to do this, our hearts and our minds become stagnant and we find ourselves in an entrenched camp of thoughts and opinions that we clench in a tight, rigid fist, unable to engage in open dialogue with those with other views or values. We surround ourselves with people who look like us, dress like us and think like us. This way of living requires very little creativity and an awful lot of fear.

Compassion requires an imagination. Compassion requires that we try to understand and feel something about someone else’s story. You might read about a girl, living in Africa, raising 4 siblings, like many other 12 year olds in her community, after they have been orphaned by AIDS. Have you had this experience yourself? No, likely your 12 year old life was very different. But if you allow the story to move your heart, beyond simple pity or sympathy, if you allow your imagination to begin to reach into that story and it begins to stir something in you; you might just be experiencing compassion. I have seen people weep, wail and shake having heard stories that are not their own; compassion at work. You feel it right in your guts. These are the type of experiences that stick with you and shape you. Stories of people impacted by HIV/AIDS, slavery, poverty, etc. can move you right to the core of your being, after that, you will never be the same. Then things aren’t about ‘issues’ they become about people. It’s not about poverty any more, it is about Jessica. It’s not about AIDS, it is about Sharron. It’s not about slavery, it is about Benjamin. The imagination of compassion shapes our lives.

Empathy draws us even further down the path of imagination and creativity than compassion. It’s not just a sad story that will take us there. Tears don’t take us far enough. This is when we begin to really embody someone’s story with them to the place where we even understand their choices and actions, whether we agree with them or not.

My friend Terry used to work at The Dam. Prior to coming to The Dam he counselled men who had been violent to their spouses or partners. “I could never do that,” I used to say to Terry. I was amazed and impressed that he could take on such a role. In some ways, my imagination was just too small... or perhaps I was too scared to let it go to those places. How can I relate to someone who beat up their wife? The answer to that question is to hear their story; to hear their story without judgement or blame but with a desire to understand, “Who is this man sitting here in front of me?”

I’ve never been a homeless youth, but I can understand why a 14 year old boy would choose to be a transvestite prostitute even though my story has been incredibly different. I would stand with that boy against those who seek only to further abuse and call out vile names. The creativity of empathy has changed my life and made his story a part of me.

I’ve never plotted against my government but can understand how Nelson Mandela got to a place where violence seemed to be a necessary course of action, even though I personally stand for non-violent resistance. His story has become a part of me and changed my life.

I can understand why a woman stays in a loveless marriage, arranged for her when she was young, even when violence is present. It breaks my heart and I want her to leave, but I will stand beside her even when she does not. Empathy demands that I lay down my own beliefs and values and choose to pick up the perspective of someone else, no matter how different from me they might be.

My life is changed when I hear my friend tell the story of how he was savagely beaten by boys in his school, one who had been a long-time friend because he had confided in him that he was gay. I find myself standing in his place and am amazed at the loving, caring man that he is today when he was subject to so much judgement and savagery because of which gender he was attracted to.

I am a white, heterosexual male who was born and raised in Canada. That does not mean that I can only understand straight, Caucasian, Canadian dudes. That will only be true if the spark of creativity and imagination in me is dying. Empathy means that I can allow the story of someone else to shape my perspective and change my point of view.

While I may be disgusted by the reality of a pimp who would take advantage of abused kids whose journey leads them to the streets of Toronto, I can still remember his humanity. He might turn a profit off the suffering and continued abuse of others, but I can still hear his story and remember that healing and change is possible even for him. But how can I expect him to listen to stories that could help change his point of view if I am not first willing to walk down that path of imagination? How can I hope to show him the humanity of his prey if I am willing to dismiss his?

The imagination of empathy can be an incredible changing agent in our lives. Those who have learned racism can learn the beauty of equality and be changed. Those who hold painfully onto ideas that allow them to hurt others can be drawn into stories that teach them how to live in healthy community with others.

Compassion and empathy require creativity and imagination. Conversely, refusing to look at things from any other point of view than our own kills our imagination and creativity. To be fully alive in our humanity requires us to remember the humanity of those around us.

Exercise your imagination!

  • Read, watch and listen to stories that are very different than your own and be open to letting them change you.
  • Make friendships with all kinds of people.
  • Listen to people, REALLY listen to them.
  • Have conversations about important things where your goal is not to win an argument but to learn something from someone else.  
  • Let stories move you. Cry and celebrate with others over the pain and joys in their lives (even if it’s just a stupid movie).
  • Pick something that you “just don’t get” and watch a movie or read something that explores the other perspective on that issue/topic/thing and REALLY listen.

People are amazing! Stories of incredible perseverance, of hope rising out of desperate circumstances, of pain and loss that leave you speechless are around every corner. Each with the power to change our lives if we open our hearts, engage our imaginations, and let them in.

© All Rights Reserved.