When my daughter was barely 1, I began to imagine what life story she would tell her friends in her college dormitory. Occasionally, I still run this through my mind - attempting to understand how what I'm doing is going to impact her narrative. What is this thing I do? In the next post, I will start to address this - a child's future life being a source of parental accountability - but right now I want to talk about it in terms of empathy. This thought process - this imagining of her future life - is it a source of empathy? Empathy is generally defined as the ability to recognize other's feelings without having them and - in a definition I tend to dislike - to do so in an "objectively explicit manner." Boo. Double boo! This is not helpful. Objective? Really? We're talking about empathy using the word which we define as "based on facts rather than feelings or opinions : not influenced by feelings." What?
Certainly "empathy" is an important buzz word in parenting, certainly post 1980s parenting. We assume it is the right course of action. Right? Good parents are empathetic. However, we know SO little about empathy. Or, I should say, I know so little about how empathy. This basic idea that a parent is "objective" and seeing their children's feelings from a remove seems like....crap...to me.
What does the word empathy mean? Has it become a moral standard in parenting that is vague and undefined - making it difficult to enact? Does it mean anything to us except that we should be considerate of others? Is that really helpful? To try to answer these questions, I'm going to briefly think about (a piece of) the history of "empathy," a term that was relatively recently coined.
In the 19th century, German aesthetic philosophers started using of the term Einfühlung (now translated empathy) . These thinkers used the term to discuss resonating with works of art. For many German thinkers (like Lotze), the idea of empathy was that when we witness art, we projection ourselves into it. We respond to it because of something within ourselves, not just the work itself. We are actually in the art. Here empathy is not moral, as much as it is about an experience of connection.
"Empathy" was quickly taken over by German and American psychologists, such as Lipps, for whom it was a category of knowledge; "empathy" is what we know of others, different from our knowledge of ourselves and knowledge of things. Prandtl (1910) suggested that there were two kinds of empathy - empirical empathy and empathy through feeling. "Empirical" empathy is based on our previous experiences that allow us to understand ("read") another person - we have hit our own hammer with a thumb before so when we see someone else do it, we know how it feels. Pretty easy to understand. Empathetic "feeling" is a little more tricky to understand, a little more mystical, and a little more like what the aesthetic philosophers were discussing. Empathy through feeling is the idea that something (?) happening in the "object" (in parenting, the other person) is also happening in the perceiver (the parent). I'll come back to this.
When "empathy" was coined as an English term it was by American psychologist, Titchner. (German psychologists continued to work on it to.) Titchner described empathy as being in the "mind's muscle," and he's not the only one to use the idea of "muscles" in connection with empathy. Vernon Lee, the English novelist (who first used the German idea of Einfühlung in English, translating it sympathy) talked about empathy alongside the notion of muscle mimicry. She described our feelings entering into "the form we perceive." In other words, empathy was very physical - the body or object had some sort of actual resemblance in connection with this shared "feeling." Titcher was big on images and non-verbal thought - suggesting that empathy is something beyond words. (See Lauren Wispe's chapter in Empathy and Its Development for more on this.)
Empathy, it seems to me, should be treated more carefully - with more consideration and nuance. Empathy is more complex that simply being a good person and thinking of others. And where parenting is concerned, I suspect thinking about empathy could help parents go beyond just imagining that they need to be "good" and "understanding" parents, but parents who are mindful of the spiritual, ethical, and mystical dimensions that pass between themselves and their children.
Several years ago, I stayed with some old friends from college for several days. Something that stuck with me during our visit was the way that, every night at dinner, their family of four practiced discussing their day together. They all asked each other two questions; 1) Where did you see God today? and 2) What was hard for you today? [This is a modified version of Ignatius' Examen.] In some ways, I was familiar with the model. After all, my parents asked me every night what the best thing was that happened to me that day. However, something about this was different. The second question in particular struck me and I've adopted using that question at bedtime. When my daughter and I share things that were difficult, it often involves discussing shared experiences. We end up seeing the experience again, but from a remove and together. A kind of complex dance emerges, where we handle each other's feelings and hopes and dreams. Often, it's very moving - there are apologies and hugging and happy or sad tears.
In some ways, this seems more like "empathy" to me than the ways I try to be empathetic on my own - imagining my child without her input. Here, instead, I am vulnerable too. This seems vital to me. The vulnerability is something that is shared. This, I feel, is closer to the idea of the German philosophers who saw empathy as something that was shared between object and perceiver. The "moral empathy" that is culturally popular is about a perfect person - not about something that is shared and shows up in two people. And I think it is not about vulnerability. I think being open to criticism, being open to the way you are being seen as a parent is a different kind of empathy.
I suspect that one of the difficulties of "empathy" in modern parenting is the idea that empathy is an intentional, one-sided action. That is, particularly since the 1980s, we've can to always be thinking about children being properly adjusted or "maladjusted." This means that the parent is the actor and the child is the recipient of our "empathy." And yet...the history of the term empathy suggests to me that it would be beneficial to think about empathy as a point of connection, not something we as adults do on our own.
Here, I am thinking that "empathy" is less like putting something into the bank and more two windshield wipers that cross paths. It is more like a ven diagram with overlapping portions. It is the crossing of beings, rather than the superiority of one being who is being good. I suspect that in parenting this means that empathy can't be about the perfect adult who is properly getting the child's experience "right." I think it is more about mutual growth and less about good parenting.
As much as it is important to try to see our children clearly, I think it is important not to forget that our children see us. In his work Merleau-Ponty is always describing how important it is that seeing objects are seen. In The Visible and the Invisible, Merleau-Ponty describes the body as "a thing in the world," noting that we as people are not just watching the world, we are participating in it.
Being a physical, perceiving organism prevents us from experiencing the world objectively. Our eyes do not just observe, but make contact with the world. M-P describes this as a rocking motion. “My movements and the movements of my eyes make the world vibrate – as one rocks a dolmen with one’s finger without disturbing its fundamental solidity.” In other words, even the act of seeing ignites something through contact. Merleau-Ponty emphasizes the fact that we have two eyes - that how we perceive the world is a part of that binocular vision. The natural man is the one who is both thinking and perceiving together.
Actually "seeing" others is rather difficult, even people we know well. It is in the senses, rather than in cognition, that we have any entry into them, even if only for a second.
M-P's work has been described as a philosophy of connection, of relationship. Here, his attention to the other's private world is excellent and (to me) he paints a picture that accurately suggests how nearly impossible it is to really see someone else's private world. In a way, he arrives at empathy. It is not through cognitive imagining - not through thought - but through sense perception that we witness the other.
I find M-P's ideas particularly helpful in thinking about empathy because he continually returns to the idea of the seen-seer. For him, when we touch, we are also being touched. I worry that our modern ideas of empathy don't fully allow for this kind of contact - that we frame it as an individual virtue, isolated within a person who is "good." Under our system, the reason to be empathetic to is to make a healthy child or, to not mar child and turn them bad.
Perhaps I have nightmares about parenting because I an approaching empathy wrong, because I am making it fear based - worried about the possibility of my daughter being angry at me in the future. Increasingly, I suspect parenting is about the present moment. And I suspect that being empathetic is about the invisible parts of us interacting and connecting with the invisible parts of our children.
How can I be an appropriately empathetic mother? I would argue that it might not happen in the cognitive wanderings of my mind - in the endless attempts for me to think through and plan things. I would argue it's a bit more wild and more dangerous than that. Perhaps it can best happen when I'm willing and able to be open to receive feedback and to be seen, not just when I'm trying to see another.