We would be wise to adapt the concept of the Seventh Generation from the American indigenous cultures who are saying, “Any decision we make should be done with the Seventh Generation in mind.” To a certain extent we can do this, but to a certain extent we can’t. Life is sufficiently complex that we can’t always clearly see the future impacts of our decisions. For example, the people who invented the automobile or the original computer had no idea the impacts those inventions would have. And that’s one of the jobs of science fiction and future studies. One of the main purposes of high-quality fiction is to expand our empathy to embrace the Other, and to expand our understanding of our technologies and our societies so that we can choose to expand our empathy in those directions. Both fiction and science can help us experience what is it like to be the Other – the strange person, the animal and plant, the future generation – so that we can empathize with them and treat them in more life-serving ways. And we can keep our collective eyes open for signs of disturbance that tell us we are drifting in the wrong direction.
The sense of extending our empathy into the seventh generation has become the basis for an emerging movement called “generational justice”. To what extent are existing generations serving themselves by colonizing the future, by stealing resources and possibilities from unborn generations? Notice how our elders are using resources needed by today’s youth. Notice how practically everybody on the planet is now using and degrading resources needed by the future. Taking all such questions and issues seriously is a manifestation of big empathy.
Gifting Economics explores what is it like to have an economy that is built primarily on gifting and generosity. In such an economy, your social status comes from your reputation for being generous, and the more generous you are, the more people want to help you. It is a very different form of security – one that actually has big empathy embedded in the economic structures. In a gift economy we find diverse rituals of giving. We find negative interest rates which cause you to want to get rid of your money as fast as you can because it is getting less valuable. Charles Eisenstein’s book Sacred Economics brilliantly describes the nature of the gifting economy if it was put to scale. If we actually ran our national and community economies that way, what would it look like? That is a form of institutionalizing big empathy – which we also see in quality-of-life indicators and full-cost accounting (which embeds the costs of social and environmental damage into the prices of products that cause that damage). These examples of taking a big sensibility about preventing and addressing suffering and embedding it into systemic structures. People who are not necessarily feeling empathic towards other people distant in space or time end up still behaving in ways that express empathy by preventing, reducing and minimizing damage on those other lives, simply by being part of those institutionalized systems.
So another part of big empathy is being aware that we can create systems that have the energy of empathy embedded in them, encased in them. Everybody who happens to be in those systems ends up willingly (if often unconsciously) behaving in empathic ways even if their emotional response would not be what you normally think of as empathic.
Total corporate responsibility is another interesting initiative. It had a burst of attention several years ago and seems to have sort of faded recently. But it embodies that powerful idea. It goes beyond “triple bottom line” – i.e., making one’s corporate operations ecological, socially responsible and profitable. It says, “We need to change the systems so it is both easier for us to be socially and environmentally responsible, and it’s easier for everybody else to be, as well. Because very often there are more financial costs involved in being socially and environmentally responsible, which biases the whole system towards being socially and environmentally irresponsible. For example, when we externalize environmental and social costs, our accounting does not cover the full costs. Prices then validate products that pollute and damage human and natural communities. So if we change the rules of the game so that everybody needs to be socially responsible for their own self-interested reasons, that levels the playing field and allows every company to be socially responsible without losing market share from trying. It’s like having a car company lobbying policymakers to require a higher total fleet fuel economy for every car company. If everyone has to do that, then individual companies who build efficient cars will not be penalized in the marketplace for doing that just because other companies have lower standards that increase their profit margins. There is a way in which regulation can raise the collective standard so that everybody can afford to function at this higher standard.
Restorative Justice – which is one of the other patterns – embodies big empathy because the empathy is not just for the victim. The empathy stretches out to the community, to the person who did the crime, and more effectively to the victim. The fact is that, in most of our current “justice” systems, the victim does not actually get made whole by having the perpetrator put in prison. But in restorative justice the victim is made whole by being seen by the offender for the damage that the offender did, by the victim and offender exploring ways to be in positive relationship, by the offender trying to make up for what they did, and by the larger community taking appropriate responsibility for what happened and what will happen in the future. Those are all forms of making whole. This is trying to expand our sense of what would reduce the overall suffering in this system of victim, perpetrator and community. We are trying to raise it all up.
Paolo Freire is famous for a practice called “pedagogy of the oppressed”. I remember a story of him trying to teach literacy to poor illiterate people in Brazil. He would talk to them first about what words were most real in their lives. “Mud” was really real to them. So he’d say, “Here’s how to spell and write ‘mud’. Now, do you have questions about mud? Why is there so much mud here in your community when there are other communities where there isn’t so much mud?” So he was entering – and leading them into understanding – the dynamics of oppression. “So now that you know how to spell the word ‘mud’ and other words that are tied to the system that generates mud, you can take action. You can now write to your representative. You can make signs and move into the world of activism where you are transforming your oppressive conditions into ones that are more healthy.” As a social activist and compassionate person Paolo Freire was practicing big empathy. It is like the story of the man teaching another man how to fish instead of giving him fish. There’s a movement beyond the simple “I am going to stop this person’s suffering” to “I’m going to empower him or her to suffer less on an ongoing basis.”
Narrative Therapy that originated in Australia has been used with and by aboriginal people who, like indigenous people in so many countries around the world, have been oppressed and marginalized. Therapists working with them help these people see how incredibly competent and even heroic they are as they struggle with the inordinate challenges of their oppressive environment. The other people in society do not have to deal with nearly the level of challenge that aboriginal people did. The therapy would move them from feeling they were no good to noticing that they were dealing with amazing challenges – and look at how well they’re doing under those circumstances! Then they’d say, “Let’s start using some of those special capabilities you’ve developed to transform the systems that are oppressing you.” It’s taking therapy and instead of saying “I’m gonna help this individual” it says, “I am going to help this individual to recognize their gifts and power and to use those gifts and power to transform the oppressive systems.” So that’s another expansion of empathy to embrace a much larger world than simply direct person-to-person compassion or help.
And the last example I am going to offer here is multiple viewpoint drama which is also covered in the Multiperspectivity pattern in this set. Multiple viewpoint drama was originated by Anna Deavere Smith. She did two one-woman shows about actual riots were she takes on the perspectives of different people who were involved in different parts of the riots – the cop, the person hiding in their house, the person throwing things and burning stuff in the streets, and so on. Each one has a perspective that makes total sense for them. She gives dramatic voice and context to what real people said in interviews she did with them. She helps viewers expand their sense of the odd legitimacy of all these perspectives and all these different lives – given the lives that they have led – and the perspectives that have evolved based on their experience. If you’re going to be involved in a community that is prone to riots or is about to have a riot or is affected by riots, by seeing the multiple viewpoints that go into generating what happens, you are able to develop an empathic relationship to each of those viewpoints and so have a wiser view of what goes on in these intense social events.
So big empathy challenges us to actually expand our empathic sensibilities so we actually do take into account what needs to be taken into account for long-term broad benefit – which is our working definition of wisdom in the public domain.