A few months ago, my sister Arnina, who lives and teaches Nonviolent Communication in Israel (meitarim.co.il), was telling me about someone who had just taken an action that was very painful for her. Part of the pain, as is almost always the case in such situations, was caused by the familiar enigma: how could anyone do this? Then she said something that has stayed with me ever since: “I can explain his behavior, but I don’t understand it.” I have quoted her often, because this simple sentence captures, for me, the profound and slippery distinction between empathy and analysis. However compassionate our analysis might be, it remains external. We see from the outside. If we explain another’s behavior through knowing or imagining their personal history, or we do so by imagining what human needs could lead to the behavior we struggle to understand, we maintain some distance from their own lived experience. We don’t fill in the gap between the history and the present, or between the need and the particular choice of strategy to meet that need.
I want to hear others through the lens of the meaning their actions have for them rather than through the effect their actions have on me. The very root of empathy resides in this fundamental shift. Whenever someone’s actions are at odds with our own needs, most of us, most of the time, do the latter. In that way, we keep our attention on ourselves rather than on the other person. We cannot be in empathy when we are focused on how things affect us.
Those of us who have been practicing Nonviolent Communication (NVC) for many years know enough to be able to decipher the possible human needs that underlie any human action. It’s our most core and treasured assumption about human beings: that every human action, without exception, is an attempt to meet some needs, and that those needs, at their core, are common to all people. Although I can never know another’s inner world, I am quite confident that I would be able to name in some meaningful way human needs that inform anything that anyone has ever done. Accurate or not, this gives me a way to make sense of what humans do, even when their actions are upsetting to me. It even helps, when I do that, to reduce the level of anguish I may feel about such actions.
And that, still, would not mean that I am able to empathize. For myself, very personally, I know that I am limited in my ability to understand, in the most visceral way, how anyone could act knowingly without care for another. Not that I am incapable of acting carelessly when rushed, stressed, or simply running on autopilot. I am also quite painfully aware of the numerous occasions when I failed to imagine or predict that my actions would have a reasonable chance of being interpreted as lacking care, and some very unhappy results this temporary blindness led to for others. It’s that I don’t recall a single time that I consciously chose to let go of care as part of what guided my actions, or that I deliberately chose a path that I knew would result in someone not experiencing care without feeling and expressing my anguish, and attempting to find a collaborative solution to the situation. I again and again see how this impairs my ability to fully understand others: my own inability to act without active care, when conscious, makes it impossible for me to imagine it fully in others without separating from them, in small or large ways, depending on the specifics of the action they took.
Why is this important? Because empathy is one of our most reliable ways to express love, and because it’s precisely those people who are capable of active cruelty, those that are hardest for us to love, that are in need of it. Because I believe that each of us, no matter what was done to us, and no matter what we have done to others, has a soul. One thing that seems beyond doubt to me is that in order to act in cruelty we must sever our own ties to our soul, so we can ignore its inevitable suffering when we harm others. I tend to believe, though I don’t have enough experience to feel solid about it, that restoring our lost connection to our soul requires us to face tremendous amounts of shame, and it’s only love that can support us in doing so.
I remember a friendship I had in the 1980s, my first close connection with a German person. One night my friend got quite drunk, and started sobbing. He told me, for the first time, about his parents’ history during the war, his mother’s ties to the Hitler Jugend, his father’s long service in the Wehrmacht, and the violence he experienced at home as a result. I witnessed his despairing, helpless conviction that the violence penetrated him, and he would never be able to be free of it. I learned a profound lesson that I never forgot: in some significant ways, it’s easier to be on the side of the “victim” than the side of the “perpetrator”, because morality is then on your side. There’s no harm done to others that we would need to heal from; “only” harm done to us. There’s no weight to separate us from our souls.
When I was recently in Europe, sharing NVC with a group of people working with children from the Philippines, India, and several countries in Africa, one person said: “NVC is about learning to love the unlovable.” How do we do that? One of the paths I’ve been trying to follow is to exert enormous discipline and undo the recoiling from others when I cannot understand them, the separation of being different, and to imagine myself being the one to have done the unimaginable act. Even without succeeding, the very attempt forces me to look at my own judgments, at my own unwillingness to accept, in full, what being human is. When I succeed, even partially or fleetingly, I almost literally feel my heart expand.
Without the capacity to love in this way, without truly and fully being able to communicate, in our own body, to another person that we see and love their humanity regardless of whatever action they have taken, how could they ever find enough courage to traverse the sea of shame that separates them from their own weeping soul?