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On empathy and imagination (with thanks to J K Rowling)

Friday, June 13, 2008 by Marianne Elliott

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A little over a year ago I tried to put into words here some thoughts I had on empathy and imagination and what they had to do with activism for human rights and social justice. What I managed to say was:

"Ultimately, though, I believe that the strongest motivator for the defense of human rights is … empathy. It is because I can imagine how it might feel to be a Palestinian mother who watched her child die because the ambulance carrying him to the specialised hospital in the West Bank was not allowed to pass an Israeli checkpoint that I feel compelled to work towards securing the right to freedom of movement for her and for everyone else. It is because I can imagine how it might feel to be an Algerian asylum seeker in New Zealand, labeled a security risk by the central intelligence agency but unable, even through my defense lawyer to see the basis on which I am accused of being such a risk, that I feel bound to do what I can to defend the right to a fair trial and a defense for him and for everyone else."

Today I watched the commencement speech that the amazing J K Rowling gave at Harvard University. I know it has been emailed and posted in various places, for good reason. It came to me from Blue Poppy, via Swirly. So I took a break from studying about how community psychologists should be committed to working with oppressed people to help achieve their goals for liberation and watched this video.

She puts it so well and I was not expecting it. Although I probably should have been expecting it, her Harry Potter books explore complex themes of marginalisation and social justice, including a fairly intense exploration of racism and xenophobia through the device of the "mud-bloods". But I wasn't. I under-estimated her and expected a speech about how important imagination is to the creative act. Which it is, of course. But she goes on to talk about how that creative act, the ability to imagine, lies at the heart of what makes us human. We, apparently unlike all other species, can imagine what it might be like in someone else's shoes and based on that creative act of imagining we can feel empathy. 

What I said in May last year was that I didn't believe that empathy was a "static quality that we are either born with or without. I think we can generate empathy, I believe we can cultivate the quality of empathy within ourselves."

I also had some ideas about how to generate empathy – they included a certain kind of travel and releasing ourselves to the transformative power of literature, art and film. I think those are still great tools for generating empathy. In fact my very next post was an exercise in using the creative power of poetry to cultivate the moments of powerful empathy that I experienced in day-to-day life in Afghanistan. But what I have been also learning, over and over again. Is the power of the simple practice of letting go, through seated meditation or whichever practice works for you, and revealing our natural warmth, compassion, imagination and empathy. 


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15 Responses to "On empathy and imagination (with thanks to J K Rowling)"

  1. Well said. I can put simple words together to say amazing things. Keep it up, your perspectives are genuine, heartfelt and real. I appreciate reading every last word as it gives me a new view from your window to the world. I would love to see some pictures sometime. Be safe…
    -Namaste & you reminded me to meditate today 🙂

  2. Okay wait, type pad made me mad. I wrote ” Well said. I love than you can put simple words together…” sorry for the mess up 🙂

  3. Elizabeth says:

    hello Marianne– I am SO glad that JK Rowling speech reached you. Like you, I didn’t have high expectations as I’d only read the first HP book and knew nothing of Ms. Rowling– needless to say, she has since rocketed to the top of my heroes list. And, I wanted to tell you your description of how you approach life and your efforts to create gentle balance echo SO VERY strongly my exact situation right now– I’m just beginning this summer to see how meditation can help me offset my “high strung constitution”– ha ha– there are other descriptions– but I’ll leave it at that.

  4. tiny noises says:

    yes yes yes! I am so happy to have your thoughts back up on your blog, connecting us to the rest of the world in such a gentle yet demanding way. Rowling’s speech was amazing! (I caught it off of Laini’s blog. . .)

  5. Hello darling girl. It is such a pleasure to read you again and to know that you are well and happy.
    I am very much liking this idea of learning to generate more empathy. I could have done that so much better today. Sigh. Pls do pass on other inspirational ideas to help us become better people in our every day.
    PS Yes! A group to Peacock Pavilions…, hot stones massage, hammam, lots of good food and……shopping:)

  6. Love this post! You and JK are already changing the world with your brave insights ~ xo

  7. Love this post! You and JK are already changing the world with your brave insights ~ xo

  8. Love this post! You and JK are already changing the world with your brave insights ~ xo

  9. amy says:

    i read J.K Rowling’s words and thought that the connection she made between empathy and imagination was profound and beautiful. on one level it is simple but it is so important to be reminded of what we can all do if we allow ourselves to be moved by the stories of others. the incredible photos that you shared during your time working overseas contained that same wisdom and power. thank you.

  10. Swirly says:

    I thought of you the entire time Rowling was talking about imagination. Your work – as a humanitarian, a woman, an artist, a friend – is a powerful example of everything she was talking about.

  11. Laini says:

    Hi M! I’m so glad to see you’re back posting again! I hope you’re well! I love this post, and I love J.K. Rowling’s speech too — I so wholeheartedly agree about the quality of empathy. I have long believed that reading fiction gives us a window into complex lives and situations we could never have imagined on our own — it is absolutely key to cultivating empathy within ourselves. Travel, of course – the real kind of travel, where we see and experience even some small part of what other people’s lives are like, so different from our own, that is another way. Maybe the best way. But for people who don’t or can’t travel, fiction and stories are it. People get so rigid in their own lives, so judgemental, but reading a book can show you the incredible, unimaginable complexity of the course of another person’s life, the way they arrive at a certain point, and you can’t judge them the way you would if you just read about them in a newspaper. And then, empathy for suffering is always so much more profound when reading a living, breathing, fully represented story, rather than a newspaper article.
    If everyone in the world were able to read lots of books and travel to lots of countries, the world would be a much better place (although, of course, if everybody read, we would have no forests left, and if everybody traveled, no oil left, so. . . ?)
    (Am I gathering, from your comment on my blog, that you are coming to Oregon this summer? I hope so!!!! When!!!???)

  12. Di says:

    You’re back and I missed your return! It’s so good to find you blogging again!!
    Loved this. I don’t know if it’s the kiwi of me or just me but which ever country I’ve lived in these past 5 years, the people there have immediately described me as empathetic and I wondered about it. This post was useful … thank you.
    Travel safe.

  13. ash says:

    I found your page through someone by the name of “harry rud.”
    I love your poem, Empathy II. It is beautifully written. The idea of putting yourself in another shoes, if only for a moment, to see the need…at least for me.
    I will say this though…that I find it rewarding to be in the struggle w/ the one need, b/c then I know what I can do to help them. That is what traveling will do for me, educate me and give me an avenue to contribute.

  14. susanna says:

    Oh, I am a fan of JKRowling. What a speech – and so true.

  15. [a} says:

    J.K. Rowling has hit the nail on the head. I love how she covered this theme, rather than go for the “…life” type speech. I love this point: “What is more, those who choose not to empathise may enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy.”
    Generating empathy–everyone has this responsibility, and the opportunity to achieve it.
    And Laini’s comment–wow!–but totally true.
    I’m sending this to everyone I know.

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