Reading by Seung Chan Lim (Slim), excerpt from Realizing Empathy: An Inquiry into the Meaning of Making
The sun is shining through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the woodshop. I am standing across a tall piece of wood, clamped to the workbench. I hear mallets banging and clamps clanging, as I move my Japanese saw back and forth, along the top of the wood, hoping to cut out a couple notches for joinery. I am in the zone, guiding the saw, shooting for a straight line, until I notice an instructor standing all the way across the room, staring at me in perfect stillness. “Yes?” I look up, feeling self-conscious. “You know...” the instructor responds, “If you listen, the wood will tell you how you’re doing. It is very honest.” I stand staring, unsure of how to interpret his Zen master-like comment. “Do it again,” the instructor suggests, as he starts to walk toward me. “And this time, listen.” I lean over and start to saw, as I take note of the sound of the blade rubbing against the wood. I hear nothing of significance.
“Now...” The instructor interrupts, as he reaches in, unclamps the wood, lowers it, and clamps it again. Less than two inches of the tall piece of wood is now revealed above the workbench. “Try again. And listen carefully.” I reposition my saw, and slowly start to move it back and forth, quickly, establishing a steady rhythm. And then I hear it. Or should I say I don’t hear it. The rumbling noise, that is. I guess it was a rumbling noise. I am now thinking in hindsight. With the noise gone, all I am left with is what sounds like my teeth biting into an apple. “Oh wow! I hear it now. That’s amazing!” I blurt out in awe in the absence of sound. In retrospect, the moment he lowered the wood, I should have realized what I had done. I had clamped the wood too high, allowing it to vibrate, making a noise similar to that of a heavy piece of furniture being dragged across the floor. The instructor was right. The wood was being honest. But until now, I was not listening.
Listening to the wood that he was sawing offered Seung Chan Lim a moment of profound insight. In retrospect it seemed obvious to him. The rumbling noise the wood was making indicated something was not right. But he kept persisting. That is until his teacher drew his attention to the discordant sound. Chan Lim learned that, if he listened, the wood had something to tell him.
If we pay attention, the people and the world around us have something to tell us. Something honest. This realization reminded Chan Lim of a conversation with a friend. His friend was suffering from bipolar depression. Chan Lim tried to express back to her what he thought he was hearing. And he kept getting it wrong. She got more and more frustrated. And he kept trying to get it right. Then the lightbulb went on. He realized that he had been blaming her. He treated her as though this were her fault, as though she were a problem to be fixed. He hadn’t actually been listening, not from the heart, not with empathy. I have had similar experiences. I’m sure most of us have. Sometimes we truly believe we are being empathetic, but we’re not. How can we know?
According to Brene Brown, empathy rarely, if ever, begins with the words, “at least.” Someone says, “My son dropped out of school.” And someone replies, “At least your daughter is graduating from college.” Or someone says, “My job is wearing me out.” And someone replies, “At least you have a job.” Or “I had a miscarriage.” “At least you know you can get pregnant.” ”I haven’t been feeling well.” “At least you have someone to take care of you.” “My friend died.” “At least she didn’t suffer.”
Empathy doesn’t dismiss or diminish the pain with “at leasts.” It doesn’t silver-line people’s experiences and feelings. Instead, whether in words, one’s presence, or gestures, empathy says, “I know what it’s like.” As Brown says, this only happens “when [we] connect with something in [ourselves] that knows that feeling.” This means reaching into our own experience and connecting to that vulnerable place in ourselves in order to relate to the other person’s pain. When someone shares their heartache, their disappointment, their losses, their moments of overwhelm and fear—when we witness suffering—empathy invites us to be with others in the messiness. To bear witness. To be present. Empathy lets us know we are not alone. It affirms the worth and dignity of each of us and connects us at the soul level.
But empathy is not self-satisfied. It does not replace the need to take action. In fact, empathy fuels the commitment to fix systems not people, to dismantle unjust and cruel systems. It fuels the passion for a kinder, more caring world. It fires our commitment to give life the shape of justice.
May our hearts and lives be stirred with such compassion.