Is our empathy failing us?

Elizabeth O’Neill investigates the concept of radical empathy and the power of story-telling.

Is our empathy failing us?

Elizabeth O’Neill investigates the concept of radical empathy and the power of story-telling.

It’s that time of year when we reflect on our journey over the past 12 months and think about what’s to come for the year ahead. 2017 was a noisy year. Some of the noise was for the better, when the unified voices of #metoo and #timesup galvanised to rupture a deafening silence, to change the social order.

Elsewhere, we saw the damage from the uproar of hurricanes, the bone shattering clamour of bombs and the rattle of bullets. 59 people were shot at a concert in Las Vegas in October and in May, across the water, 23 people died in an explosion in Manchester. Just two acts of mass violence in the past year.

The saying goes, one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.

Who would want to feel the pain of a million deaths? But with all the noise and cyclical violence, is our empathy failing us? Is it drowned out?

A 2015 study (Empathy Constrained: Prejudice predicts reduced mental simulation of actions during observation of outgroups) shows empathy is not as acutely triggered when it comes to people of different races and nationalities, or the so called ‘other’. That would imply that as an emotional and intellectual resource, empathy is limited.

Is it possible to create a world where people simply care more?

Lee Keylock is a man affected by a mass shooting in America. He was a teacher at the High School in Newtown, Connecticut when a man walked into the Sandy Hook elementary school and killed 20 children and 6 adults.

It was an incident that would indirectly change the course of his life and lead him on a path towards fostering empathy.

Lee is Director of Programs with the New York and Limerick based Narrative 4, a non-profit organisation aimed at building empathy in people through story-telling.

Lee says: “Newtown is a small town and my colleagues were there (at the shooting), I had students in the class who lost siblings and friends who lost children. It’s hard because in the last while we’ve had all these mass shootings in the US and every time the wound is cut open again.” As an English teacher, Lee felt the books on the curriculum were too tragic.

He’d read Irish writer Colum McCann’s book, Let the Great World Spin, and wanted to read that with his students.

“Someone had given it to me at that time and even though Colum’s book has tragic elements there’s a hope that pervades the text.

“I wanted with my kids to say look we don’t have to be defined by this – well, we don’t have the luxury

actually of not being defined by that narrative but that’s not the only narrative that we should allow to define us.” So Lee wrote to Colum’s agent and he says that was the catalyst for Narrative 4 becoming so big so quickly.

“Colum wrote to me and I got to know him. He told me about the idea for Narrative 4 which had been born in theory at the time.

"The story exchanges work by bringing people to a distraction-free space where they are randomly partnered. They are asked to tell a story from their life, perhaps a story that might show the essence of who they are.

"When they are regrouped, the retell their partner’s story in the first person.

“I tried it in the class with my students and suddenly they started telling all these other stories about their lives and maybe 50% were anchored in the shootings, but many told other stories.

"We decided to keep doing it and twinned our school with a school in Chicago that had dealt with gun

violence on a daily basis. It just became this wonderful thing because students suddenly realised that we’re not just bringing people together, we’re actually breaking some of these stereotypes.”

Colum McCann, President, Narrative 4, speaking during the launch of the Narrative 4 Global Centre. 58 O'Connell St, Limerick.
Colum McCann, President, Narrative 4, speaking during the launch of the Narrative 4 Global Centre. 58 O'Connell St, Limerick.

Eighteen months later, Narrative 4 grew so quickly that Lee left Newtown High School and decided to work there full time.

Colum McCann’s involvement with the organisation began in 2012. He is now its president. “We were brought together by the executive director Lisa Consiglio who had been working on the idea of story exchanges for many years.

"She brought authors from all over the world together to share this simple but extraordinary idea that we are so much more than our own stories and that we are in fact built out of the stories of everyone else too.”

Colum believes in the power of storytelling, and talks of not just empathy, but radical empathy.

This is ‘the ability to step with agility and decency into the shoes of someone else. The ability also to find ourselves in the stories of others’.

When asked if he thinks if everyone is capable of such feeling, he says “Given the current political climate I’m not sure that I would say everyone. But it is extraordinary what can happen. We have seen gun enthusiasts change their minds completely. We have seen narrow minds expanded.”

One story exchange was documented for the New York Times, where gun collector Todd Underwood was partnered with Carolyn Tuft who lost her sister to gun violence.

His site, United Gun Group, is where George Zimmerman sold the gun that killed Tryvon Martin for a reported $138,900. During the exchange, Todd is visibly distraught retelling Carolyn’s tale.

According to Lee Keylock, you never know who is in the room, who you are encountering in life. In one exchange, the story prompt was to talk of the first time you realised that race mattered.

“A middle-aged Jewish lady tells this story from the position of this guy who was best friend with Emmet Till (who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955).

Author Colum McCann: Believes in the power of storytelling.
Author Colum McCann: Believes in the power of storytelling.

"This is a case taught in law schools, it’s sparked the civil rights movement. As this white woman talking she’s crying and the man whose story she is retelling is consoling her.” But what about our shores, and place for empathy here?

James Lawlor is charged with developing Narrative 4 in Ireland and has helped to oversee the creation of its first hub outside of America, in a beautifully converted Georgian building in Limerick City.

Less than a year in business, and James has already witnessed countless examples of the transformational power of story exchanges. One involved a Skype exchange between a school in Newcastlewest and one in Connecticut. It was during the US election campaign and the students in Limerick heard about the implications of being undocumented.

Talking afterwards they discussed the idea of free movement in Europe and Donald Trump’s wall. All of a sudden something in the news became very real. Darragh De Klein is a 5th year student from Gaelcholaiste Lumni who has taken part in three exchanges.

He remembers this first one clearly, where it was intergenerational and he heard a tale of domestic violence.

He says: “I felt a responsibility in retelling the woman’s story. I had a lot of confidence doing it, I couldn’t half-heartedly do it, her story was so emotional.”

Narrative 4 is showcasing the power of stories, as part of the Limerick Spring Festival of Politics and Ideas on 8pm Tuesday 20th February at 58 O’Connell Street Limerick. It’s a free event and all are welcome.

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