Imagined Empathy

After Katrina the interior of a home in the lakeview section of New Orleans.

Imagine for a moment if you were one of the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Imagine the flood waters steadily rising–first at street and then ankle level. Imagine the terror you would be feeling, hearing that the waters are destined to rise and the eye of the storm has yet to even arrive. Imagine the panic you hear in the streets and from your neighbors. The wind is ferocious. Glass is shattering and fling in the air. Tree branches, torn billboards and all kinds of debris are flying all around in a turbulent, violent mess. The water is now at your door frame edge. Finally, the levy breaks and the waters quickly rise to waste and even ceiling height, leaving you destitute, confused, overwhelmed and shocked. With the flood, you have lost your family photos, your personal effects, shelter, food and perhaps even your pet or loved ones. You have lost everything and those elements that are most important to your survival and happiness as a person, your food, shelter and loved ones, have been taken from you–all in the course of some hours of a single day.

If you spend any amount of time meditating on this and invest in putting yourself in another person’s shoes, imagining that you are living their significant circumstances, you will, no doubt, come to feel something. In this case, you will likely feel deep sympathy, sorrow, grief and loss, emotions most feel following tragic events.

In acting a role on stage, TV or film, actors often ask a magical question of themselves. Here it is:  What if? What if I were this character? What if I had their life circumstances? What if I had their face, their body, their needs, their relationships, their conflicts?

This is a keystone ability for actors and can lead the performer towards delivering a performance of seeming emotional truth and depth. Let’s call it Imagined Empathy, though it is really compassion. Compassion and empathy are not the same thing, of course. With compassion, I feel for you, having never experienced something similar. With empathy, I feel with you, having experienced something similar myself.

Empathy is hugely powerful. When we empathize and feel with someone, we are engaging in collective emotions and such collective feeling can promote all kinds of change. When someone feels that they have “been there before”, that they understand another’s grief, they will often reach out to ease that person’s suffering–through donations, through labor, through offering of services, etc. Social and political changes often occur through collective feeling.

We are on the street. A man is occupied with his phone and stumbles. He falls off of the sidewalk and into the busy street. A woman near the man sees the fast moving car that is moving too fast to stop and not hit the man. What does she do? She jumps into the street and pushes him out of the way, only to receive a speedy and life altering blow herself. We see this often in the news. Someone falls on the subway tracks and another risks their own safety to drag them off, just as the train rushes in. Why would someone expose themselves to such harm, to save another? Carl Jung, the great psychoanalyst, refers to such a moment as a sudden and metaphysical realization that we are all one and that in the other person getting hurt, we, in fact, hurt ourselves. That is another form of empathy.

One of my students, by the name of Mitchell Roush, was telling me that it is this quality of empathy that is the reason he loves to act on stage. Mitchell loves to imagine life through another’s eyes. Doing so is perspective-altering. Imagining life through the lens of others can enable us to have imagined empathy and having such, can alter our perceptions of people around us and the world in which we live, even if only as an actor playing a role (or just imagined for a brief span of time), with circumstances cast off and normal life resuming with the closing of the stage curtain.

Jim Hart is the founder of The International Theatre Academy Norway and Austin Conservatory of Professional Arts.

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One thought on “Imagined Empathy

  1. Thank you for humbling me to add me to your writing. Even so, I thoroughly enjoyed this post. We’re always in a world or part of something larger than ourselves. The challenge is to remember such.

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