Normal empathy is sometimes critiqued as undermining rationality and being narrowly focused on visible suffering and those we know. Big empathy addresses suffering both directly and through systemic causes, using reason and perspective. So support people to see, feel, and care about suffering normally hidden by distance, time, otherness, and systemic complexity.
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Our normal empathic response – unless we have some serious disability in that realm – is designed to feel for the immediate suffering of others around us. The more the person or entity (like a pet) is like us, the more they are part of our group or family, the more they are recognized as us instead of them, the more we feel empathy. If we see them as them, we don’t necessarily feel empathy at all. We can feel much more empathy towards a dog that is like our dog than we can feel for a person caught in a war 10,000 miles away, or for a bug that is being killed by some poison that we have put on our crops, for example.
As empathy can be powerfully and narrowly focused on visible suffering of those that are like us, loved by us, or known because they are part of “us”, our reason may say, “Don’t let these feelings get in the way of what you’re doing.” But often we can’t help it: somebody is suffering and we need to reach out – in our hearts, if not always in action. The fact that this feeling is both narrowly focused and powerful makes it very suspect for people who are trying to find rational solutions to our collective problems. Empathy can easily be viewed a distraction.
Big empathy is trying to speak to that by saying, “We can have an empathic response that starts at immediate feelings for visible suffering, but functions within an expanded sense of who and what is included in ‘us’, who and what we feel empathy for.” Einstein spoke of “widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature.” So big empathy is a big form of empathy because we do recognize that the automatic empathic responses we have to the lives we are most connected with may get in the way of addressing more distant kinds of suffering. So, living in big empathy, we actively work to balance our responses to the more and less immediate and the more and less obvious forms of suffering, to find ways to be fully human at all those levels.
This is not easy. We are not necessarily naturally built to expand in this way, although I’m not sure how much of that incapacity is cultural and how much is biological. In this, I am speaking largely from what I experience in Western “developed societies”. In contrast, you hear Native Americans speaking about “all my relations” – meaning all life – and even stretching to include the forces of nature. They are living in a familial relationship to all of life, which has implications for how they manifest their empathy. It’s like when you kill the deer for food, it’s not just, “here’s a piece of meat.” It’s like this is a being; there needs to be some respect for it. This is not something to abuse by cutting it up and wrapping it in plastic and putting it in the meat market, or sending it for consumption halfway around the world. You’re dealing with a life there, and it’s deserving some respect even though you know that you need to eat as part of your own lifecycle, and that everything else is eating something, too.