Of Grand Masses and big messes.

By the end, I am always smitten.

It never seems to start like that, though. Instead, I’m like a sceptical Midwestern farmer: ‘Haven’t heard you, haven’t heard of you, don’t know you, don’t know if I like you.’

Berlioz, Grande Messe de Morts. At first glance, the title suggests a big mess. And, as with so many of these massive orchestral pieces I have been fortunate to play, at the very beginning I am in a state of confusion and uncertainty.

What? Four brass bands? Two hundred voices? What? Violas trading chords with the wind section? What? Coupling flutes and trombones? How many timpani? How many bassoons? Are you sure that’s not a misprint?

Nevertheless, we show up to rehearsals and learn the notes. ‘What is this?’ players in my section ask one another after the first read through.  Week on week, the music emerges. It is not a big mess, but a grand mass, a requiem, a tribute to fallen soldiers in the French Revolution of 1830.

I not only learn the notes, but learn to listen to the music’s story, finding meaning in the melody. The constantly changing key signature of the Dies Irae stops being a nuisance and becomes a musical metaphor. Yes, on the day of reckoning, it would be hard to know just what ground you stand on. Of course the keys are constantly shifting underfoot. Following directly on from the Dies Irae is the Tuba Mirium, where the four brass bands make their entries like the four winds, each playing from a different section of the cathedral, the calls combining and colliding in the middle like a fountain of sound.

After an ethereal, acapella Quarens Me from the chorus, the strings come staggering in to the Lachrymosa with lopsided grace. Is there any other kind for those of us with feet of clay?

Of the Offertorium, our conductor says: ‘Imagine this as a three members of a string quartet, knowing they will never play with the fourth again.’ This idea takes my breath away. What is the complex narrative of such sadness?

‘I don’t care what backstory you make up for this music,’ he says at the end of our final rehearsal, ‘but don’t play a single bar without imagining it as part of something staged, some story to tell.’

The backstory. This reminds me of my piano teacher, who would ask, ‘what’s the story in the music?’ for each piece I learned by heart for a recital. I would make a story to hold the beginning, middle, and end together. Knowing the story made it impossible to forget the music because I always knew what happened next.

One of my traditions with the concert in Ely Cathedral is that during the long break between the final rehearsal and the performance, I go to Topping Books and choose a book.   I spend as long as I like looking at all 3 floors of books, nosing through philosophy, fiction, travel, poetry. My bounty in years past has included The Elegance of the Hedgehog, The Sorrows of an American, and Let the Great World Spin. One year, I bought the Life in UK Test – Official Study Guide. It was a necessary evil (the book, the test). The next year, I got a copy of A Moveable Feast. That took away any bad taste lingering from the previous year’s choice.

This year, I found The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit. I was delighted to learn the title is taken from Georgia O’Keefe. ‘From the faraway nearby’ is how she would sign her letters written from New Mexico. Yes, New Mexico is my faraway nearby.

I opened the book and the first sentence asks me:

What’s your story?

Exactly the question I have been asking myself for the past month or so. She continues:

It’s all in the telling. Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice. To love someone is to put yourself in their place, we say, which is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story.

I had found my book for the year.

One of the themes of the book is story as a conduit for empathy, for connection.   Another theme is story as coming home to one’s own place in the world. These themes resonate deeply with me.

Which brings me back to the concert. Although the music somehow always assembles itself into a story by the time we perform, the beginning of learning is inevitably a mystery and a struggle. How are we going to pull this one off? This one, I think, this will be the one that undoes me.

But I’m proved wrong again. It doesn’t undo me. With practice and faith in the alchemy of process, the Requiem steps out of the fog and into its own majesty. It ends with an echo of the beginning, an older version of itself revisiting a once familiar place. It closes as the strings pass arpeggios from section to section like a giant harp, the entire orchestra a single instrument. Requiem. Peace.

As I said, I am smitten.

You might think that after eight seasons with the Philharmonic, I’d get used to this transformation. But no, not really.   Like the coming of spring, it astounds me each time. I hope it always will.

What does this have to do with story as a conduit for empathy, story as coming home?

The experience of playing these monumental works, of journeying from unfamiliar black marks on white pages to heart-rending music is what inspires me to write stories which seem beyond me at the beginning. In early drafts, I often don’t know what a story is about.  That’s why I’m writing it: to find out. I’m not sure what it’s all leading up to, but I keep turning up anyway. And slowly and surely, just like the Requiem, the whole becomes clearer and I see a way. A way to understanding another, a path to finding my way home.

In that spirit, I’m starting something that feels big for this autumn; I’m starting some Writing Circles, where we begin from the blank page and work our way to telling a tale that matters to us.  We will write together towards stories that will teach us empathy, stories that will lead us home. The Grand Masses and big messes of music have taught me that with faith and practice, we can create something bigger than what we think we know. Want to join me?

Registration for Writing Circles now open. Visit here for details.

Click here for photos from our concert in Ely.

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My creative process in 7 words

I promised you a few words on my creative process last week. So, here they are:

  • Show up.
  • Move words around.
  • Take risks.

That’s 7 words. Leigh Chambers, who wrote about her creative process here and passed the baton to me, suggested about 700. I’m 1% finished. Hmm….perhaps I can expand.

Show up

Showing up at the blank page – I prefer mine to be unlined in an A5 journal that fits into my bag, thank you very much – is something I try to do every day. Some people write morning pages; others write evening pages; I’m sure there are those who write mummy-has-locked-herself-in-the-loo-to-hide-from-the-kids pages. As with so much writing, the adjective is less important than the subject-verb-object construction: I write pages.

Musicians spend hours on scales and etudes to become fluent on their instruments. This is what showing up at the blank page is for me: it’s a way of becoming fluent in my own language, learning how to sound like myself. When I get to the point where I let the words come without being precious about them, then, yes, I generate nonsense, but I also generate possibility, something to work with, to work from.

Showing up requires time and attention. Two natural resources to use with care.

Move words around

I move them across the page. I shuffle them in their sentences. I transplant them from story to story. I sweep them into the bin.

People cite ‘kill your darlings’ as a golden rule of editing. I say splice them up. A phrase here, an image there – they don’t all need to be centre stage. Sometimes, a sentence doesn’t do itself any favours being in a particular piece. Instead of trying to make it fit, I’ve learned to move it elsewhere. In a garden you don’t want all the flowers to bloom in the same place at the same time. Why would you in a story?

Once I have a workable draft, I aim to reduce the word count by 30%. It’s an arbitrary number, but it makes me interrogate each word. I ferret out those that are hanging around, not doing much. Some of my usual suspects: most adverbs, passive verb constructions, just, and, the, so, also.

I change tenses, shift points of view, flip the order of events in a story or stanzas in a poem. I’m playing LEGO with the bits and pieces of the writing. I want to see what they look like in different configurations.

Take risks

 Sharing writing feels risky. For all of my blank books filled with words, having a public voice is new for me. I started this blog using a pseudonym because I wasn’t sure how to claim words that no one else had asked for. Now I use my own name because I got jealous of the attention that fictional person was getting! My blog has been a way to meet people, to experiment, to build community. Itinerant readers and writers come and go. I like to think of my forest as a pausing place for busy travellers on the web.

Another risk is submitting pieces for publication. Sure I get rejections. That’s part of the game. But the rejections are getting nicer. And I have a fund: for every rejection, I pay myself £5. I’m saving up to do an Arvon course.

I’ve joined a writing group. It makes writing and being a writer much more real. They are a fantastic bunch. Still, though, when I share something, it’s scary. We use the rule that the writer can’t talk during discussion of her/his piece. I love this rule. It removes the impulse to explain. Instead, I take the responses as indications of what the writing transmits on its own.

When I comment on another’s work, instead of taking the easy route of simply saying ‘I liked it’ or ‘I didn’t like it,’ I challenge myself to articulate why something does or doesn’t seem to work. I try to make specific suggestions in terms of craft or technique that could be helpful feedback while respecting the writer’s vision.

Lastly, I’ve been finding opportunities to get others to write and share their writing. I’ve had a ball leading writing workshops this spring. I’m planning to do more in the autumn. Watch this space.

These are unnecessary risks. I don’t have to do any of these. Each one makes me feel exposed. Every time. But they are also the choices that keep the process alive and make it worthwhile.


There you have it. My writing process, in 698 words.

I’m fascinated not just by writing processes, but by creativity in general. So I’m pleased to share with you the creative processes of some marvellous friends. Below you’ll find a short bio for each with links. I find these women to be inspiring, funny, powerful, and generous. Do treat yourself by clicking through to find posts about their creative processes. Notice that not only will you be jumping across countries (UK, US, Australia), you will also be roaming through different fields of creativity!

Sue Ann Gleason

Sue Ann Gleason

Sue Ann Gleason, creator of Chocolate for Breakfast, the Well-Nourished Woman, and the Luscious Legacy Project, is a lover of words, a strong believer in the power of imagination, and a champion for women who want to lead a more delicious, fully expressed life. Sue Ann has been featured in Oprah and Runner’s World magazines and numerous online publications. When not working with private clients or delivering online programs, she can be found sampling exotic chocolates, building broccoli forests in her mashed potatoes, or crawling into bed with freshly sharpened pencils and pages that turn.

Click here to read Sue Ann’s thoughts on her creative process.  You can also connect with Sue Ann in a number of other places. Go on, take look! Delicious freebies await you!
joyful eating | nourished living | wise business |Facebook



Lynne Cameron

Lynne Cameron loves change and being in different places. Each new space offers fresh ways of seeing, and its own opportunities for making a home. Basic needs include a kettle for making tea, poetry books, paints and brushes. She is an artist, painting colour-rich abstracts grounded in the natural world. She has been a professor of applied linguistics; a teacher of children and adults; a trainer of teachers. She’s written books on complexity, metaphor and empathy, some of which won prizes. She runs training workshops for women who want to progress through academia, and for businesses who want to understand how empathy can work for them. What does Lynne think about the creative process?  Find out here. See Lynne’s paintings and read her art blog at lynnecameron.com. You might also enjoy reading the Empathy Blog or visiting her facebook page. If you tweet, Lynne’s Twitter handle is @lycameron


Emily Gubler

Emily Gubler

Emily Gubler suspects John Wesley Powell would say she is over encumbered by unnecessary scruples. She spent a decade traveling the country as a wildland firefighter and another half working in the back of an ambulance–and was thrilled by the number of poets and artists she met in each field. Currently Emily lives on a Colorado hillside, writing short stories and personal essays and delighting in Western Tanagers, Great Blue Herons, and Golden Eagles.  To see what Emily has to say about the creative process, click here.  Her writing can be found at www.ordinarycontradictions.com.



Narelle Carter-Quinlan

Narelle Carter-Quinlan

Narelle Carter-Quinlan embodies the Body-Land. She is a global leading exponent on yoga with scoliosis and the lived experience of spinal anatomy, illuminating the complex with reverence, humour and story. As a Photographer, her work is a benediction of communion; our inner and outer terrain. As a dancer, choreographer and artistic director, she is currently researching House of the Broken Wing; a performative, image and written exploration of moving within a scoliotic landscape. She is also a Transformer; true story.  Narelle’s thoughts on the creative process are here. Visit Narelle at embodiedterrain.com to view her Embodied Ecology Photography© and blog, and to hear more about EASS-y, her upcoming e-course exploring the embodied anatomy of scoliosis and yoga.

And what about you? What are your thoughts on creative processes? Please join in with your thoughts or add your link in the comments, I’m curious to hear what you have to say.

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Creative Processes – in action and reflection

Last week was a busy week for me. On Tuesday, I got to read an excerpt from a story I wrote, and on Friday, I had the pleasure of leading a writing workshop on empathy and creativity at Lynne Cameron’s, exhibition, The Living Impulse.

So much time, energy, and thought went into those two events this past week. All worth it.

The reading was for the launch of the first Words and Women Anthology – a collection of 20 pieces by women living and writing in East Anglia.  Although the story I submitted was not selected to be included in the book, it was one of the commended works. When the event organizers asked if I’d like to participate in the reading, I was thrilled to say yes! The hidden blessing in not having my story in the anthology (and there’s always a hidden blessing), was that I had the chance to improve and revise. What I read on Tuesday night was several drafts down the line from what I submitted last November.

To make the most of my 5 minute reading slot, I had to decide what part of the story to tell, and how. I jumped to the middle, and cut, and cut, and cut. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to read my own words aloud, even though I read others’ words to my kids most nights. So, I practised. A lot. Just like I used to do for speech and debate. Just like I still do for orchestra. (I probably practised a little more for this than I do for orchestra, but nevermind.)

On the night, it was a flashback to all those piano recitals when you sit and wait for your turn, listening less and less as your turn comes closer, then feeling the huge flush of relief when you finally sit down after you have finished.

And during the reading itself? That was good fun. I left everyone hanging on a cliff (well, sliding down a mountain, actually). I hope I get a chance to do it again. Maybe next time, I’ll tell the rest of the story.

The workshop on Friday was such a special experience. People came from Central London, Cambridge, Milton Keynes, and other places. It was wonderful to hear the ideas and stories people brought into our reflections on the multi-faceted relationship between empathy and creativity. There were writers, poets, teachers, painters, scientists, researchers, a therapist, a movement specialist, and students. All these backgrounds suggest to me that empathy and creativity are ideas that resonate across disciplines, that empathy and creativity are innately human ways of connecting with others.

Exploring Empathy and Creativity at The Living Impulse, 5th Base Gallery, June 2014

Exploring Empathy and Creativity at The Living Impulse, 5th Base Gallery, June 2014

It felt like the workshop brought together so many strands of my own motley background: teaching, writing, event planning, conversation, meeting people with different backgrounds and outlooks. I loved that I had the chance to design and lead a workshop in just the way I wanted. I wasn’t trying to meet someone else’s educational objectives or bring everyone to a particular external outcome. It was a living thing, a learning lab, and we didn’t know what to expect. We left with more questions than answers. And that, to me, is what learning looks like.

About two-weeks ago, Leigh Chambers asked me to participate in a ‘blog-hop’ by writing a blog post about my writing process and then tagging 3 other writers who would, in turn, write a post about their writing process. Part of my writing process is changing the rules. I changed it to creative process instead of writing process. Another part of my creative process is not following instructions. I was supposed to have written the post sometime during the past week, but I was so immersed in various creative processes, I haven’t done it yet. (Sorry Leigh!)

However, I have a lot to say – at least 10 words – about creative processes. And I did find 4 other lovely people who said they’d like to share a bit about their creative processes. We’ve decided we’ll each write a post for our blogs next Saturday (14 June) about our creative processes. Will you join us?

Come back next Saturday to meet my 4 friends (and get links to their thoughts on the creative process). During the week, why not also think about your own creative process? I’d love to hear your thoughts as well. See you soon!

Considering creativity and empathy, 5th Base Gallery, London June 2014

Considering creativity and empathy, 5th Base Gallery, London June 2014

Posted in Music and art, Non-parabolic trajectory, teaching and learning, Writing | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Empathy links – Resources and conversations

Have you ever had that experience that once you start thinking about something, you suddenly notice examples of it everywhere?  Before I was pregnant, mums and babies were rarely on my radar.  Once I knew I was expecting, though, bumps and buggies were popping up all over the place.

It seems to be happening again, as I make final preparations for my workshop next week, with articles and ideas on empathy.  I have a few resources I’d like to share with you to think about empathy, creativity, and how the two are related.

1. Realizing Empathy – A six-minute video by Seung Chan Lim, a computer scientist and designer whose work on empathy and creativity has galvanized a vibrant discussion world-wide.

2. Empathy, a Handbook for Revolution – The book and website of philosopher and writer, Roman Krznaric, who believes that empathic actions can be a powerful tool for social change.  I have now finished the book, and will reread.  While I don’t agree with everything he says, I did find it a worthwhile read.

3. The Living Impulse – In addition to my workshop, there are several other events occurring during Lynne Cameron’s exhibition, including a conversation on Wed 11 June between Jo Berry, whose father was killed in the 1984 Brighton bombing, and Patrick Magee, the former IRA member who planted the bomb.

4. What is it like to live with parents very different from you? – An article in this weekend’s Guardian magazine that interviews five families where the children and parents are very different.  I found this article especially poignant, as I believe family relationships can be one of the most complex areas to practice empathy.

5. Sidling up to difference, an interview with Kwame Anthony Appiah – Although not explicitly about empathy, this interview by Krista Tippett suggests some beautiful ways of learning to live with difference and making the ‘other’ not an abstract threat, but a named friend or neighbor.

Over the past few months as I have been working towards this workshop, I have learned much.  There is a wealth of conversation occuring in the world about empathy, creativity, and their combined potentials.  I am so looking forward to the workshop next week to learn even more.  A few spots remain, so if you’re interested, more information and registration here.

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Wooden wind-up truck

This is something I wrote during and after my recent workshop at Fitzwilliam College, Uncovering Connections.  I might add to it, change it around, or put it into a story.  That’s the fun of making these small bits of writing.  It was a great night and a lot of people wrote and read their drafts aloud.  It’s been a while since I’ve posted something like this on the blog – time for a change of pace.

2014-05-27 12.30.25

wooden wind-up truck

‘Please, come find an object, painting, or photo that seems to hold a story for you. If you choose an image, imagine stepping inside the frame: What do you hear? What do you see beyond the borders? What is missing? If you choose an object, how does it feel to hold it? What does it remind you of? Who was the last person to hold it?’ I paused to pick up a small wooden toy, ‘But if you choose this little truck, be a bit careful, as it’s fragile.’

They all came to the table in the front of the room, looking through photos I had pulled out of old scrapbooks, postcards of paintings, a wooden box, a small leather coin purse filled with plastic pirates’ gold, a champagne cork, beach stones, worn smooth by sand and waves.

One young woman went straight to the wooden wind-up truck.

As they wrote, I watched them, having given them the instruction to ‘keep their pens moving.’ Every so often, someone would stop, pick up the object or gaze at an image, turn it around, and start writing again. I love the sound of pens scrabbling across paper. The young woman gently rolled the truck back and forth across the blank page in front of her.

After an initial spurt of writing, everyone paired up and shared some thoughts or bits of writing. I wandered through the room, eavesdropping, eager to hear their stories. When I got to the girl who chose the truck, she looked straight at me,

‘I chose this because you said it was fragile. But, I thought “It doesn’t look fragile.” I wanted to write about that, but got stuck.’

I looked at it again. Was it fragile?

It didn’t start off as fragile. It used to be as sturdy as the chubby fingers that drove it over the carpet, under the dining room table, and around the sofa. The spring was new and strong; when wound tight it would unfurl and send the truck zooming through the hallway, clattering down the stairs. Buzz buzz buzz it travelled between his mother’s legs as she spoke on the telephone to her sister and past the dog’s basket. It weathered sandboxes and rainstorms and being chased by the cat and stepped on by the houseguests.

The fingers grew longer and the palms lost their perpetual stickiness. The truck rolled under the bookshelf and began to host spiders and dust bunnies, keeping company with stray marbles and lost jigsaw pieces. The boy looked for it, but his attention was caught by other toys, other games.

It would be hard to say just when it became fragile. Was it during the years it was packed away in storage? Was it when the glue that held the stickers dried out and the blue windows began peeling off? Or did it become fragile by being lost in memory, out of use, atrophied by neglect?


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Dyspathy, curiosity, and Pandora’s box

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 .


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Empathy and Sympathy

As  I mentioned in my last post, I thought it could be helpful to define empathy and sympathy, as the two are often contrasted. On my way to the dictionary, I passed my 10-year old son.  I decided to ask him what he knew about empathy and sympathy.

‘Oh!  I know – we were just talking about this at school. Let’s see, sympathy is if, umm… something bad happens to someone and you feel bad about it.  And the other one is if you do something about it.’

‘Is the other one empathy?’ I asked.

‘Yeah, that’s it.  Empathy is if something bad happens to someone and you do something about it.’

‘What if something good happens to someone and you celebrate with them?  Can that be empathy?’

‘I don’t know.  Maybe. Yeah, I guess so.  Yes, that counts too.’

I’m not sure this is how I would have drawn a contrast between empathy and sympathy, but it provided an interesting starting point.  I was heartened by my son’s response (he must have a good teacher!) and also liked that he was willing to extend his idea empathy to embrace positive events as well.

I then looked at definitions of empathy set out by the artist and applied linguist Lynne Cameron in her research on empathy dynamics, and Roman Krznaric, the writer and philosopher who recently published Empathy, A Handbook for Revolution.

Here is what I found:

Lynne Cameron defines empathy as ‘one person understanding how it feels to be another person.’  She continues, ‘Empathy is action.  Empathy is something we DO, not something we have.’

Roman Krznaric offers this definition: ‘Empathy is the art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide your actions.’ (italics mine)

All three of my sources (my son, Lynne, and Roman) promote the idea that empathy involves action.

If action as opposed to non-action is one of the key differences between empathy vs. sympathy, what other contrasts then follow?  Some interesting contrasts popped up as I thought about this:




Passive Active
Distance Involvement
Commentary Response
Low stakes Risks and rewards of engagement
Safe Vulnerable


Sympathy feels like watching a TV sitcom with only half my attention.  I can turn it off, I can walk away.  I have invested very little.  I see the characters, but they don’t see me.  There is a flatness to sympathy.

An example of sympathy as a learned social grace could be the Barbie at the end of Toy Story 2.  As she does her duty and wishes everyone a good day, she has a painful grimace on her face.  Once she thinks everyone has left the theatre, she drops her smile, relieved to be free of her role.   At this extreme, sympathy veers into insincerity.  A sympathetic gesture can be kind, soothing, even helpful, but a distance remains between the people involved.  Sympathy is not a bad or false emotion, but I wonder if it stays safely on the surface.

Sometimes, sympathy is marked with an undercurrent of relief that says ‘I’m glad that’s not me.’  On the other hand, empathy recognizes that ‘fundamentally, I am no different from this person.’  We wear different clothes, eat different foods, speak different languages, have different amounts of money, true, but the core emotions that connect us – fear, joy, uncertainty, elation, shame, desire –these are the same.

Empathy feels like a powerful equation or potent chemical in the repertoire of human interaction.   It is a tool of engagement.  And as with other tools, such as imagination or intellect, it takes time and practice to wield it with skill.

During my first years in the classroom, I believe empathy was my strength as well as my weakness.  While I could connect with my students, I could also become too wrapped up in the whirlpools of someone else’s confusion, too easily tossed by another’s tempest.  Perhaps this was empathy untamed, unaware.   I often think that effective social workers, medical professionals, clergy, teachers, counsellors, and others in the helping professions must spend years learning the language of empathy and becoming skilled at remaining separate from but present for another.

I wonder if one part of empathy comes from witnessing another’s story to recognize shared experiences or emotions.  And then another, equally important, part is leaning forward to hear the details of difference that make each person’s experience unique.

Perhaps empathy requires listening until the whole story has been told, the speaker’s perspective has been drawn.  We might ask questions fuelled by curiosity:  Is there anything to add?  Are there colours in the background that shade the meaning?  Are there layers to uncover?  After as much of a picture has been created as the person wants or is able to tell, an empathic response might be to sit back and observe the whole.  Pause. With a bit of time and patience, an idea may arise.  Empathy involves action, yes, but it needs to be a considered response instead of a rush to fixes, stock advice, or band-aids.

If we were to respond to every piece of news and every interaction with complete empathy, what would happen?  Would we find ourselves without boundaries, drowning in every passerby’s sorrows, buoyed by every stranger’s joys? Would we approach enlightenment? Or madness?

I don’t know.  But I feel that to engage at this level of empathy in every instance would be draining.  Instead, we can practice in small steps, choosing empathy when seeing a friend, or during a difficult conversation, or when helping a child.  We can build our empathy muscles interaction by interaction, growing in both strength and fluency with time.  As we grow stronger, we can reach further.

Empathy is an art we can spend a lifetime practicing.


Next time: What prevents empathy?  What is the opposite of empathy?  Why does empathy get blocked? 

Registration continues for the workshop on Empathy and Creativity on 6 June at 5th Base Gallery, just of Brick Lane in London.   I’d be so pleased to welcome you there!   Click here to go to the registration page.

Also, the exhibition, The Living Impulse, that has inspired these posts and the writing workshop will be open to the public from 14.00-20.00,  6 -11 June, and from 17.00-21.00 on 5 June.  There are many other events occurring, and it’s a wonderful chance to meet Lynne Cameron.

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