Art and Empathy: Who Gets to Tell Your Story?

Give Me Shelter, painting by Kate Langlois for empathy blog post

 

Despair, boredom, restlessness, fear, worry, lack of pleasure: these are conditions that have haunted so many of us during the pandemic and interfered with our feelings of joy and accomplishment. One resource that’s always available to us is our creativity.

Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian author, touched on what makes art so powerful in What Is Art?

“The activity of art is based on the fact that a man, receiving through his sense of hearing or sight another man’s expression of feeling, is capable of experiencing the emotion which moved the man who expressed it. … And it is upon this capacity of man to receive another man’s expression of feeling and experience those feelings himself, that the activity of art is based.”

Art is the passing of feeling from one human heart to another. We pass on the feelings that we have in our hearts to others.

After witnessing on TV George Floyd’s murder, I felt speechless, mute, but also compelled to “say something.” But what could I, a white woman very far removed from Mr. Floyd’s world, contribute? I did not want to appropriate a story that was not mine, and yet I was deeply unsettled and needed to find my words. The result of this inner conflict surprised me.

I don’t just write for Psychology Today. I write fiction and I am deep into work on my second novel. But my original training and background is as a poet. When George Floyd was murdered, I hadn’t been writing poetry for quite a while. And yet, something rose in me. The tension I felt to speak against violence, oppression and privilege, about victims and perpetrators, sprung forth in what became a series of fifteen new poems. They are now a section of my forthcoming book of new poems.

Poster from BringBackOurGirls.ng for empathy blog postThe poems are in the voices of women who have suffered violence, mothers who have lost children to war or disaster, women in exile, girls kidnapped by rebel forces. I felt I could get inside their skins because I know about loss too, perhaps not as dramatic a loss as in these cases, but I know I carry in my DNA the grief of ancestors and a lineage of persecution and diaspora. My novel-in-progress, The Lie of Forgetting, delves into the enduring pain of intergenerational trauma.

Empathy enabled me to write my poems. Difficult times invite us to cultivate our inherent capacity for empathy by exposing us to suffering, to feel into the pain with our entire being, and to understand that when we give these feelings form, as we do when we make art, they are redeemed from the darkness. We take what’s inside ourselves and objectify it so that we can walk around it and study it, so that we represent our private reality outside ourselves and offer it to the culture. We don’t have to “learn” empathy as much as allow ourselves to feel it.

Feeling connects us with what is most vital and powerful within us. It’s one of the ways we know we are alive, and a barometer of what matters to us. Fear, sadness, rage can be great motivators to create, but we don’t need to be embedded in catastrophic events for our creativity to flourish. We do, however, need the courage to be vulnerable to our own truths and realities.

The path forward is like a hero or heroine’s journey in which we set off into the unknown, unsteady and unsure, but with a sense of urgency. Along the way we meet demons and obstacles. Many times, we desperately want to turn back. But an unnamable faith urges us onward. When the hero or heroine attains the treasure, she returns with it to her place of origin, refreshing and renewing the culture.

To make art we first have to believe that making it matters, which is a serious and profound question in a world filled with very real, very concrete struggles. Why create art if we don’t think it matters?

In a world such as ours, might we not conclude that art is superfluous, an indulgent privilege of certain classes and populations? Might we not ask: how can my poem or my painting or my song matter in the grand scheme of things, and therefore, why should I spend time and energy in that direction? My answer is a resounding yes!

Our desire to create springs from the depth of our soul. This urge is hardwired in our chemistry. One piece of evidence for this is that, across time and cultures, some form of art has been with us since humans walked the earth.

Seventeen thousand years ago, Paleolithic people descended into caves in southwestern France, and blowing mineral pigments through tubes, painted scenes of hunting and other ritualized activities on the rock walls. The cave spaces are assumed to have been spiritual sanctuaries that were decorated with pictures of horses, oxen, birds, and people, and it may be guessed from these gestures that art’s origins are linked to a human need to document our lives and to create a sacred space for ceremonies in which we connect to the divine.

 In the Living Quarters by Bedřich Fritta (1906–1944). Drawing from Theresienstadt for empathy blog postArt creates new forms and visions that help us survive. Gospel, hymns, blues, jazz were born out of the joys and tribulations of a people. In the Nazi ghettos and death camps, the persecuted made drawings and paintings, wrote poems and stories that leave a testimony of how they lived, suffered, and died. The friends and families of the disappeared in Latin America; the incarcerated, interned, and exiled in camps and gulags and on reservations; the political prisoners in China and in other Asian countries have all left us their poems and stories and paintings. The need to tell our stories and to bear witness urgently pushes us to find our voice. The personal is always political. In an interconnected universe, what happens to you influences me and everyone else – and vice versa.

The brilliant writer and thinker James Baldwin said: “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in people.” What he meant is that not only are we born into a particular time in history, but we are born into a particular family with particular struggles and life experiences and backgrounds. This is our material. This is what we bear witness to and document in our stories, songs, paintings, dances.

You may be listening to this and saying, “What does this have to do with me?” Maybe it feels like you are in exile and you spend every day trying to survive in a system founded on oppression and colonization. Or maybe you say to yourself, “I’m not in a death camp. I’m not in exile. My issues are minor compared to these.” In both cases, the question remains, “Why are my work and my voice important?”

Believe me, it is.

What we all share is a desire to give form to something that has not been expressed ever before. It is our own individual stamp on the ineffable sorrows, joys, pain, anger, sufferings that compose our lives. Each one of us lives a life that contains these things and so each one of us has a unique perspective, an individual way we view the world. Our individual perspective is what composes the whole, the collective, and each of us participates as actor and witness in creating a society.

This means that in some ways, we are already prepared, and we already have the raw material to create. We come to our creative being with a personal temperament, with specific social circumstances, with specific historical circumstances, with our ancestral influences, with inclinations, and with a great deal that we don’t know about ourselves, that is, with a great deal of mystery.

Please know you already have at your disposal all the material you need. If you can allow yourself to follow your curiosity even into states that are uncomfortable, like anxiety or depression, and become the observer of them, and seek to find within them some nugget of worth, you will discover that inside these darker elements there is often a hidden treasure, a gift. This, I believe, is the deep secret of art. It is life-restoring and life-enhancing for both the creator and her or his world.

Art is a bridge to empathy, to connection with our pack. Because humans are pack animals, we suffer when we become isolated. Isolation, loneliness, despair are the breeding grounds for our darker emotions. But the act of creation is life-giving. This is the reason why writers sometimes refer to completing a book as “giving birth” or “having a new baby.”

In my own experience, the ability to focus intensely on a project provides a buffer from worry and anxiety that is so much with us during this time of uncertainty. No matter what comes of the attempt, there is satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment in the effort. Crucially, a sense of hope is restored.

Experience, that is our material, all of it, the good, bad, the ugly. What is it you will remember most about this time of the pandemic on planet Earth? What is pressing inside you to get out?

As the great jazz musician Charlie Parker once said, “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out your horn.”

One of my favorite things in the world is discussing with book clubs the themes of this post – creativity and empathy – as well as the themes of my novels and other posts – resilience, writing, intergenerational trauma, mother/daughter relationships, Carl Jung and Jungian therapy, dreams, and even fairy tales. If this interests you, please find my contact info here.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”



Dreams and Our Need for Empathy and Imagination

Atomic Skull by Jim Leedy for Empathy post

 

Sometimes a book we’ve had for years falls off the shelf at just the right moment. I read James Hillman’s book, A Terrible Love of War, in 2004 when it was first published as a response to 9/11. In this, his 28th book, Hillman sought to examine the archetypal roots of our “madness for battle,” the “myths, philosophy, and theology of war’s deepest mind.” He was moved to write it because of what he found missing in other books about war. He rejected, for instance, Susan Sontag’s concluding assertion in Regarding the Pain of Others:

“We can’t imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is and how normal it becomes. Can’t understand. Can’t imagine. That’s what every soldier, every journalist and aid worker and independent observer who has put in time under fire and had the luck to elude the death that struck down others nearby stubbornly feels. And they are right.”

“She is wrong,” Hillman counters, “If we want war’s horror to be abated so that life may go on, it is necessary to understand and imagine.”

In an interview years after he was secretary of defense, Robert McNamara stated that the catastrophe of the war in Vietnam over which he presided pointed to “a failure of imagination.” Years later, comparing our unpreparedness for the attack on Pearl Harbor with that on the Twin Towers, National Security Agency director Michael Hayden famously said, “perhaps it was more a failure of imagination this time than last.”

For both men, a failure of imagination implies a failure to apprehend a reality that is present but hidden or incomprehensible, which is to say, that we do not apprehend we cannot comprehend. In order to understand and respond to something, we must first be able to see it.

Muriel Rukeyser in 1945 by Imogen Cunningham -- for Empathy postMuriel Rukeyser came to a similar conclusion in 1949. In The Life of Poetry, she writes: “We are a people tending toward democracy at the level of hope; on another level, the economy of the nation, the empire of business within the republic, both include in their basic premise the concept of perpetual warfare. It is the history of the idea of war that is beneath our other histories…But around and under and above it…is the history of possibility.”

It is this sense of hidden possibility, of renewed inspiration that now urgently calls for my attention. A failure of imagination implies a failure of empathy, our ability to stand in another’s shoes. Empathy and imagination seem to many the weak sisters of rigorous rational thinking, and yet, might they be an avenue to creative change? This strikes me as critical for us now as individuals and as a society. Can a Clinton voter imagine the anxieties of a Trump voter? Can a Trump voter imagine the fears of a Muslim?

We live at a time of enormous turmoil and transition, a time when re-apprehending and re-comprehending how we view the world is crucial, and re-examining the governing modes of how we make meaning timely.

Nobel portrait of Albert Einstein -- for Empathy postEinstein said we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. He also said the true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination. We often forget that each of us has our own ready source of imagination in our production of dreams. Each of us possesses a variety of marvelous, fantastic, even weird images and scenarios remembered from our nightly vision. Here, in our own production studios, we might discover creative insights that have the potential for personal and cultural transformation.

Listen to Einstein describe a dream he had as a teen:

“I was sledding with my friends at night. I started to slide down the hill but my sled started going faster and faster. I was going so fast that I realized I was approaching the speed of light. I looked up at that point and I saw the stars. They were being refracted into colors I had never seen before. I was filled with a sense of awe. I understood in some way that I was looking at the most important meaning in my life.”

Later in life, Einstein reflected, “I knew I had to understand that dream and you could say, and I would say, that my entire scientific career has been a meditation on my dream.” This dream led to him figuring out the mathematics of relativity theory.

Freud and Jung have argued that our dream images are not random and without meaning; with scrutiny, we can find that they contain a secret language of symbolic representation. These representations are both individual and personal, arising out of our unique experiences, but connected, especially in Jung’s interpretation, to a collective unconscious.

Structurally, dreams unfold as series of sights, sounds, and feelings that do not necessarily make logical sense. The interpretation of dreams relies upon their metaphoric and associative logic, the juxtaposition of unlikely or unrelated elements that can evoke surprising meanings. This is how many poems “work.” Take these lines from “Blue Mountain,” a poem by Roberta Hill Whiteman.

“Crickets whir a rough sun into haze.”

And “I sweep and sweep the broken days to echoes.”

To parse these lines would be to destroy their music and cadence and beauty, but we get what she means! To quote Rukeyser again: “A poem is not its words or its images, any more than a symphony is its notes or a river its drops of water…” The work a poem does, she writes, is to transfer human energy, “and I think human energy may be defined as consciousness, the capacity to make change in existing conditions.”

Poetry and dreams originate in that part of our psyche involved in our archetypal roots and mythic imagination. Einstein is only one example of how the geniuses of science and industry – and artists – respond to the world and its problems with the force of their imaginations, by “thinking outside the box.”

André Breton in 1924 -- for Empathy postThis is the route of mystery and surprise, of new conjunctions and startling awarenesses. As André Breton wrote in his Surrealist Manifesto, “I believe in the future resolution of these two states – outwardly so contradictory – which are dream and reality, into a sort of absolute reality, a surreality…”

Freud and the Surrealist artists he inspired looked for ways to expose the deeper substratum of psyche by freeing oneself of the ego’s conscious control. The use of drugs helped, as did alcohol. Automatic or spontaneous writing, collage, assembling unlikely elements into a painting freed artists from the constraints of tradition and conventional imagery. These methods of accessing the unconscious continue to be popular today. Writing workshops, workshops on trauma and addiction often use uncensored journal writing as a means to reach into dissociated aspects of self.

Becoming conscious is a lifelong task. Our dreams beg to be brought into the daylight world, to be honored, to be understood. And perhaps one of us will find within our dreams the insight or idea that might generate the transformation in empathy and imagination that James Hillman seeks – and which would benefit all of us.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”