Taking an empathy exam for 2017

Aristotle once said that “to perceive is to suffer”. Reading through Leslie Jamison’s “Empathy Exams” can be said to be a humbling lesson into what empathy truly means- that it’s not just about listening and seeing but active imagination and temperament to feel the pain of others and that of this world. Entering into 2017, my own challenge would not just be to write more but to attempt to take an empathy exam in reflection, specifically for deeper empathy to balance between tensions in time, perception and hope.

Time: Between the present and the future (現在與未來的平衡)

“I just try to live every day as if I’ve deliberately come back to this one day, to enjoy it, as if it was the full final day of my extraordinary, ordinary life.” — About Time

It’s often easy to think to the future of “what next” given both the excitement at its possibilities and fears at its uncertainties. Yet time is always an undervalued currency and none more so than the gift of the present. Time will always move faster as we grow older and having a recognition that all things are but temporary will go a long way in helping us appreciate the present moment more. And so it is on us, to have eyes on future dreams but to have our hearts on enjoying every single present moment now.

Perception: Between abstraction and groundedness (理論與接地的平衡)

“For every fact there is an infinity of hypotheses. The more you look the more you see.” — Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Abstraction from theory is vital for us to form mental models of how we view the world and to challenge us intellectually to see inconsistencies and conflicting frames of the world. Yet groundedness is important as a listening device to see the world for what it is. On some levels, I would make a case that groundedness is even more important in understanding and seeing first-hand what the realities and constraints on the ground are like. When I do investment due diligence at work, what’s most important is never just the market analysis or financial valuation but actually trying and experiencing the products/ services in person. In truth, abstraction without groundedness is detached from reality while groundedness without abstraction lacks synthesis and reflection. It’s only by immersing our intuition into the streams of life that allows greater clarity into life.

Hope: Between reality and idealism (現實與初衷的平衡)

“There is only one heroism in the world: to see the world as it is, and to love it.” — Romain Rolland

Jamison’s book explores the full depth of pain that empathy requires yet there’s a missing sense of hope in changing things for the better. The danger of blind idealism is in being deluded from reality while the threat of being overly realistic is in excessive cynicism and despair. Developing the capacity to feel the depth of pain while retaining optimism is thus imperative to appreciate the beauty of the world for what it is. If we can get to a point where we can stare at the cold hard facts of life yet still have that heart to love, then that’s true hope and heroism.

Finally, between asking and answering

“Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination. Empathy requires knowing you know nothing.” — The Empathy Exams

How often do we write to answer rather than to question? Because sometimes empathy is more about asking the things unsaid and uncovering the things unseen. So here’s to a 2017 of reflecting and asking as we live more in the present, stay more grounded and empathize & hope more.

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