Empathy: Seeing Myself as The Other Sees Me [3]


Empathy [1]Empathy [2]

In the previous two posts I’ve been trying to get to grips with the roots of empathy with the other, and the location of our fears of engaging the other. I’ve radically summarised Levinas and Zizek by saying that the former would locate our fears in the enigma of the other, and the latter in the enigma in the other.

I have been pondering a little theological thought experiment surrounding this too. Imagine in the moments just before that first Christmas, just before the incarnation event, as God pondered what he – in Jesus – was about to do. Was he afraid or nervous? Jesus certainly was on the Mount of Olives, so perhaps it’s not a ridiculous concept. The question then is what the locus of his fears were.

Levinas would locate it within God himself: a concern that he might fail, that these humans he created are more of an enigma to him than he might think. Zizek would locate the fear elsewhere, and I think this is perhaps closer to the truth: God looks down and is concerned less that humans are enigmatic, but that they are an enigma to themselves. In other words, will they even understand what God is about to do?

If this is right, then we might say that God’s empathy with us is perhaps thus not grounded in overcoming his internal fear of failure and being able to look at us from a state of fully resolved self, but grounded in accepting what he is going to look like from our perspective as conflicted and unresolved selves. As Zizek notes:

For Hegel the Incarnation is not a move by means of which God makes himself accessible/visible to humans, but a move by means of which God looks at himself from the (distorting) human perspective.

In other words, the empathy towards the other that God displays is not about seeing the other, but about seeing ourselves as the other sees us. To reflect on a practical example: a parole officer needs to empathise with the released prisoner they are dealing with, and understand their motivations and background as they overcome any fear of ex-offenders that they may have. But I don’t believe that that is enough. What Zizek is trying to get us to do is perhaps not to reject Levinas, but move one step beyond him. Levinas urges us to look into the face of the other and see the sacred there. But Zizek says we should look so intently into the eyes of the other that we see our own reflection in their eyes. In other words, we begin to see how the other sees us.

The parole officer must then not simply try to understand the ex-offender before them, but come to an understanding of the way that person is going to view him as a parole officer. It is only then that we can get beyond some of the power imbalances that so often come with our attempts at ministry to the poor, the needy, the oppressed.

[And, in the light of today’s news about Jackson’s death, one might reflect on how much better for him things might have been if the media, and those around him when he was young, had looked closely at how he was seeing them, rather than just at how they could commodify him. A tragic tale…]


4 responses to “Empathy: Seeing Myself as The Other Sees Me [3]”

  1. Gary Manders

    Have you had a look at Roman Krznaric’s work on empathy. School of Life fame. He has a practical take on teaching empathy which I think will complement your thinking here.

  2. Really looking forward to hearing him expound on it at Greenbelt this summer. I’d heard he was doing stuff, so invited him to speak. Should be really good.

  3. I think you’re a twat. HTH

  4. Thanks Lynch. To be honest, if you really ‘hoped that helped’ I’d have thought you might leave some details to explain your reasoning. Lol.