Day 344, February 22, 2021

Radical Empathy 

Tonight's soundtrack: George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars, NY, 1999

How do we define radical empathy? One of my tasks is to Google the term and see if it has been used before. If empathy is: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or the present without having the feelings, throughs, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner... or the capacity for this. Or, and I like this one, the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it. Thanks, Merriam-Webster

The dictionary makes empathy seem somehow faulty or not sincere. But I think there is the capacity for empathy to be more than just the appearance of a thing. Rather, empathy can be a thing that is cultivated and made more powerful in the way that it can inspire us to become better human beings. What I mean by better, is to become human beings who are more concerned about others' well being. The radical aspect is moving beyond just our capacity to feel others, but to actively pursue it in one's work and mission. 

Ok, I just Googled the term, because I've been making it up... and... I think I know the person who first appears on a video for Radical Empathy! I guess I'm going to have to watch that!

Ok, back to my thoughts before I look elsewhere.

I would argue, that for the most part, we are born with a sense of radical empathy and as children we are taught to toughen ourselves, shield ourselves from all the pain in the world. My mother used to worry that I was too sensitive... because I was a sensitive kid. I was easily swayed by suffering, injustice, pain, and I was not good at protecting myself from such things. I think that might be why I remember so many things from my childhood, they made striking impressions that seated themselves in the emotional resonance of a still developing brain. As a child, empathy is a motivator, it causes a change of action. There is a built in reward system, where understanding the feeling of others makes one's sense of self grow beyond the confines of one's existing identity and experience.

So here are the five tenets of radical empathy [that I'm just making up]:

  1. Recognize our very human limitations. There is no ultimate complete embodiment of empathy and action on this Earth, in this form. We all have failings where we do not meet our own expectations. 
  2. Open one's self to overcoming cynicism. This is our primary defense to empathy.
  3. Practice allowing one's self to feel emotions of others. We do that by exercising the imagination, reading books, watching movies, listening to music.
  4. Listen, be perceptive, pay attention to the world around you. This is both the physical world, and the worlds that have existed in the past, the histories that make our present.
  5. Allow empathy to direct action. Rather than shielding ourselves from empathy, perhaps there are ways that we can strengthen that empathy to empower agency, to increase understanding and care for one another.
The reality is that we are all human and filled with human failings. The world is not devoid of Buddhas, Gandhis, Mother Teresas, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jrs. Rather, the world is filled with Buddhas, Gandhis, Mother Teresas, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jrs. There a millions of moments of empathy that channel the best of our predecessors, just as we have failings that would make the most steel hardened ones of us blanch. We just have to recognize that capacity within ourselves, ourselves and others.

Be well,


  1. My mother used to say that everyone had the capacity to be a musician. I think empathy is similiar to having the gift for music. So maybe everyone is born with some capacity, but others are born with a tremendous amount or ability to see and use that empathy. Is that radical empathy?

    1. Definitely! I thought about musicians for sure... and also wonder about born with vs. nurtured and opportunity for... but all good food for thought!


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