Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Is Empathy a Profession? Isn't This the Job of The Holy Beggar?

In advance of the Zócalo event (public lecture / discussion to be held in Los Angeles October 4) Is Altruism a Wonder Drug?” the planners approached several people who, in their words, "make a profession of empathy" to tackle a simple question: Can kindness be taught? You may read their comments by clicking the link.

What a strange job ... "profession of empathy". Isn't this what your Holy Beggar does in fact (vs in a think tank)? 

Anyway, this is my comment (below) and I'll post a link to the write-up about the live event.

Which comes first: the need or desire to give? According to my teacher Gilla Nissan, the first word of the first verse of Genesis is easily rendered as “creates an offering”. This promotes the notion that gratitude and the means to express it are inherent in the very creation of existence; that we are always in a position of negotiating an exchange, of giving and taking.

According to Jewish tradition, it’s not just as a matter of empathy -- " ... what it must be like to be in her situation." To stop here would be to yield to a dualistic understanding of who I (vs?) and you are / am. A full understanding of gemilut chassadim requires more than such sensitivity. In practical and spiritual terms, these acts of loving-kindness – together with a knowledge and appreciation of the standards of being human and determination to take responsibility for action -- bring about "tikkun olam", the repair of the broken vessel of existence that we all share.

The eminent Vietnamese Buddhist monk and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Thich Nhat Han describes this greater reality as “inter-being” … you and I “inter-are”. I am already part of “her situation.”

Judaism’s mitzvot, spiritually weighted deeds, are specific actions to this end. When a boy or girl at the age of 13 is declared a son/daughter of the mitzvot (bar/bat mitzvah), s/he is accepts personal responsibility for such behavior in the presence the community.

I also must impulsively respond and only “… lean on my imagination …“  as to what is needed in a situation. Consider what colonialist Europeans "knew" and thus projected on their “discovery” of native peoples (who wondered the same thing) when they landed on the shores of the "new world". Even if I could empathize with the “obvious” situation of who is in front of my nose seemingly hungry, in need of clean clothes and a safe place to sleep, my imagination is always limited, and, thus, my conclusion and response may be inaccurate, even harmful I quickly abandoned the notion of “quaint” after visiting economically impoverished neighborhoods in southern Africa and seek a deeper understanding of the dimensions of Bhutan’s “Gross National Happiness”.

These are some of the concerns that I have been addressing throughout my 40 years in the nonprofit “sector”. Perhaps this is why the "role" of beggar exists among us across time and space of human experience. I’m exploring these ideas in my blog

P.S. The larger discussion now has passed. One may audit it here. It was none too cleverly subtitled: "Take Two MItzvahs and See Me in the Morning", but it was more than that. Bravo, Zocalo.

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