What’s Your Take: In Praise of Empathy by Ronald Mackay

In this series, Northumberland artists share their views on issues related to the arts.

“Seeds of the destruction of many an empire since the beginning of civilization may be traced to wilful blindness, a refusal to cultivate empathy. Obama claims empathy to be indispensable for human flourishing.”

Ronald Mackay

There is a faction that would have those who engage in the creative arts limit their practice and production to what is intrinsic to their own personal lived experience and no more. Denunciations of artists who try to walk earnestly in others’ shoes abound.

My “Take” on this predicament applies to all artists whether they create music, draw, paint, take photographs or write. I believe that to imagine oneself into places and periods, minds and mores beyond the limits of the solitary ‘I’ is a most valuable artistic strength.

Here’s why:

“This is a place where the last of the persecuted may for a time find refuge. In the amber of the sunlight that lies between the high hedges, there is preserved an air of the past, the presence of an older summer. Under the surface of the visible world, I can hear the soft wolf-stride of the rapacious world beyond.”

Is this Lyse Doucet recording events unfolding in Ukraine? No! They are J.A. Baker’s words taken from “The Peregrine,” one of the deepest expressions of empathy with the other we may find.

He lived alongside a pair of peregrine falcons for a decade. His purpose was to observe so closely as to enter into the majesty of their lives, to savour the unbending role they play in nature.

From this empathy, Baker won a prospect very different from his human perspective. Others have done the same. Williamson’s “Tarka the Otter” is still a favourite. However, writers usually choose to empathise with their fellow humans, be they friends or enemies, in adversity or joy.

I heed those public leaders I admire, among them, Barack Obama. Obama spoke about our obligation to exercise empathy, the “ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us – the child who’s hungry, the laid-off steelworker, the immigrant woman cleaning your dorm room.”

Our efforts to see the world through the eyes of those who differ from us, Obama believes, redeem us from meanness and self-obsession. The error of believing that the world must revolve around the ‘I’ leads to a downward spiral from indifference and apathy into injustice, oppression, persecution.

Seeds of the destruction of many an empire since the beginning of civilization may be traced to wilful blindness, a refusal to cultivate empathy. Obama claims empathy to be indispensable for human flourishing.

Patiently, he urges us to make empathy a habit, to reach across the boundaries of ethnicity, religion, race, and culture. Only then will we advance peace and understanding at home and abroad. Our common well-being, he tells us is “about attitudes; about a sense of empathy; about breaking down the divisions that we create for ourselves in our own minds and our own hearts that don’t exist in any objective reality.”

He encourages us not exercise our empathy just for “cute little kids”. He insists we exercise empathy when talking to those who don’t share our politics, who claim to dislike a race other than theirs, whose preference is contrary to ours. He urges us to “…disagree with people without being disagreeable. That’s part of the empathy.”

How can we live up to such high expectations?

The average person may vary in the extent to which they strive to see the lives of others as meaningful, or to attend to their differences as warranting understanding, recognition and, perhaps, esteem.

As artists we have chosen a life of public significance. We have chosen to step forward, opted to make the effort to understand those with whom we share this world. We choose to raise our voices, take up our paints, pipes, pens or Pentax and do our best to make sense of those we travel alongside but are different from ‘me’. This responsibility in an integral part of the artist’s life.

To seek and pursue understanding by putting ourselves in the shoes of the other is our constant challenge. Our efforts are neither trivial nor superficial. Empathy is a tool we hone to make up for the shortcoming in our world that Obama identifies as the “empathy deficit”.

The road is hard and fraught with failure. Our test, Obama observes, is not whether we shirk the summons… “it’s whether (we) let it harden or shame (us) into inaction, or whether (we) learn from it; whether (we) choose to persevere.”

Let’s raise our glasses: “To empathy!”

Ronald Mackay

About Ron:

A career in international development has persuaded Ronald that cultures have always borrowed and continue to borrow from one another. Without self-serving and often asymmetric learning from others, no culture flourishes. Ronald has worked with peoples from the Arctic to the Southern Cone and in Asia, Africa, Europe and Oceania. His published memoirs include Fortunate Isle about Tenerife and The Kilt Behind the Curtain about Romania in the late ‘60s. His insights into his own humanizing influences and those of others in https://www.fd81.net/ appear in the several anthologies published separately by Robert Fear and Alyson Sheldrake.

Northumberland Festival of the Arts will take place across Northumberland County from September 16 – October 2, 2022.

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8 Comments Add yours

  1. Shane Joseph says:

    Let us hope that the current trend in self-censoring political correctness is only an errant blip in literature’s march alongside human evolution

  2. Another excellent, thought-provoking article from Ron. Thank you, Ron and NFOTA. I would add only one aspect to this: to put yourself into someone else’s shoes means understanding them. The story of Baker and the peregrines is a perfect example. Too often, we think we know what makes people tick, how they came to be in their current situation. And too often, we make up our minds about others on little true understanding, even when we mean well.

  3. dmwauthor says:

    Again a well discussed and enlightened article on how the arts contribute to making the world well. Thanks Ron

  4. Great stuff, Ron! Keep it coming. Empathy is easier for some than others. I often wonder how much you can get naturally unempathetic people to acquire empathy.

  5. Drew Monkman says:

    As always, some very wise words, Ron. Since I do not really believe in Free Will, it makes empathy easier. I believe people are who and what they are as a result of the totality of the their life events. From their genes, parents, influences, culture and much more, they really could not be different from who they ended up being. This applies equally to people who deal with numerous obstacles in their lives to people who we deem as “successful.” The latter, especially, should be far more humble. Empathy is so important at this time in history where so many people are hyper-judgmental – the best example being “cancel culture.”

  6. Alister Cumming says:

    I can only empathize, Ron…

    Your phrasing this issue as a matter of appreciating and respecting other people’s (or beings) senses of themselves seems preferable and desirable compared to arguing about the dilemma of “appropriating” others’ cultures. That latter argument has always seemed as trivial as admonishing editors or teachers for recommending revisions to (and thereby appearing to appropriate) people’s writing.

    I wondered if your concern here arose from pondering the moral failing of the Scottish wine merchant who insultingly spat out your wine in Argentina in your other, recently written story?

  7. Nila Mendoza says:

    Empathy should be a subject of study in all educational fields, because it is the only thing that may allow us to establish a subtle dialogue with what we do not understand. When you come to understand the nature of things and people, you learn to respect them, since you begin to act freely and not under the yoke of fear. When you act without fear of what is not familiar to you, you achieve freedom of being and you will never feel afraid or reject what is different to you.

    Art, in its different manifestations, is an excellent means to develop empathy and, therefore, respect what, out of ignorance, makes us fear. Excellent article, Mackay. Big hug!

  8. ronaldmackay says:

    Mr Gribbin, the Scot from Melrose and portrayed my recent story “Confessions of an Accidental Wino”, would have done well to develop a greater sense of empathy for a pair of winemakers who responded to his request, Alister. However, it was written in reaction to criticism rained down on fellow-Scot and poet, Kate Clanchy, To Kate’s credit, she has taken some of these criticisms onboard and is rewriting some passages in her memoir. Instead of withdrawing from the challenge, she has chosen to ponder and rewrite where deemed necessary. She is demonstrating her effort to develop an even deeper empathy.

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