What is the opposite of empathy? At first, I thought of apathy, simply not caring. However, Lynne Cameron’s research introduced me to the concept of dyspathy. She notes that ‘dyspathy is anything that stops empathy.’ I find this a more vivid contrast than apathy. It brings to mind two things: First, that empathy has motion. I imagine empathy as a flowing current between people, like a river, whose path is to connect pools of common humanity. Second, that dyspathy is an obstacle in the path of this river. It takes energy to block empathy, to obstruct one’s response to another. From their research*, Lynne Cameron and Simon Weatherbed note three kinds of dyspathy:
- Blocking – People find a reason that prohibits empathy with the other.
- Distancing – The other is seen as too different, far away, or extreme for empathy to happen.
- Lumping – ‘They are all the same.’ A whole group of people is lumped together and individual differences are not seen. Empathy becomes impossible.
Similarly, in his book, Empathy (which I am reading and recommend), Roman Krznaric discusses four barriers to empathy: prejudice, authority, distance, and denial. Other obstacles could include being too close to a situation, feeling threatened by change, experiencing a loss of memory or a mental or physical illness, becoming drained of one’s own resources. What blocks empathy for you?
Among the many ways the dyspathy can arise, I notice a common thread - dyspathy is frequently connected to fear. If I block my own empathic response to another, it’s often because I am afraid.
Fear of making a mistake, saying the wrong thing, doing something that could be embarrassing, humiliating, or even harmful. Fear of retribution or consequences. Fear of being taken advantage of, or of becoming too involved. Fear of stirring up something painful. Fear of losing something. Sometimes these fears are valid, sometimes not. But fears also hold us back, freeze us into stasis. Fed by fear, actions that feel dangerous or daring or even just a little uncomfortable can be deemed not worth the risk.
When faced with a situation where I could be empathic or dyspathic, I am reminded of the story of Pandora’s box**. What might fly out if I dare to make a connection? Curiosity gets a bad rap in folk tales: curiosity and cats, Bluebeard’s wives, Eve and the apple, and of course, Pandora. But I see curiosity as an antidote to fear (thanks to Marianne Elliott and Tara Mohr for sparking my thinking on curiosity). Asking questions out of wonder, not worry, can propel us gently forward on streams of empathy: What would it be like to be the other person? Has anything like that ever happened to me? What would happen if I tried to reach out in a way I never have, to someone new or someone known? What would happen if I listened for what I might share with another instead of tripping over a subtext that separates us? What if we looked at old stories through new lenses?
For example, take Pandora and her box. While the box was closed, it was not as if there were no evils in the world, it was just that they were all in a tight, confined space, under a lot of pressure, mixing and churning. Sooner or later, that top was going to blow anyway. I am drawn to the moment just after Pandora opens the box. Once open, she could have run away from the evil spirits that poured out. She could have abandoned the scene. But she didn’t. She stayed. Initially, curiosity nudged her to open the box. But I’d like to think that it was empathy that kept her at its side to witness the emergence of Hope.
*From Empathy Dynamics in Conflict Transformation, A Manual, by Lynne Cameron and Simon Weatherbed.
** As with any myth, there are many versions of the story of Pandora’s box. Depending on the teller, the time, and the reasons for remembering the story, the emphasis changes. Of the different versions I could find available online, I like this one: Pandora’s Box.
Next on my mind: finding opportunities to grow and nourish empathy.
Registration for my workshop on Empathy and Creativity is still open. Click here for details. It would be lovely to see you there .