Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A Final Precursor to Empathy: Not-Knowing

As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, I have not had the courage to suggest that "practices wondering with aplomb" go on the CITYterm skills checklist, but we do have another skill within the "Habits of Learning" category that is called "embraces confusion and explores not-knowing." While wondering is a practice that most students have some familiarity with from when they were younger, "not knowing" is something that terrifies many of them every day. Obviously, this idea of school as a place where you are supposed to know things (and get punished if you don't know them) goes back to the very early posts of this entire blog, and to the importance of the DKDK zone as a basis for experience-based learning.

What Emily (composite) and I discovered as we talked about her anxious feelings about practicing being empathetic was that Emily had an extraordinarily high fear of "not knowing" that was inhibiting her ability to dare to enter into someone else's experience. In short, she could be sympathetic and even enjoy that experience because she was sure that what she was feeling was accurate. But, when she was being asked to imagine what someone else was feeling and how they were constructing their world, she was paralyzed by her fear of "not knowing." What were the premises and assumptions at the base of that other person's world? How could you see implicit ones from their actions and hear them in their language? What were the foundational myths that this person believed in? What metaphors could you construct that they would agree that they lived by? What were the questions that preoccupied them most deeply? And, at the heart of it all, how could you be sure you were right? Wasn't this empathy practice just a complete, random shot in the dark?  

The more I listened to Emily the more I was  reminded of the poet John Keats' idea of "Negative Capability." In a letter to his brother in 1817 Keats was wrestling with the idea of creativity and trying to figure out why someone like Shakespeare (whom Keats greatly admired) should possess the ability to inhabit someone's character in such depth and breadth. He posited that Shakespeare cultivated a "Negative Capability, that is, when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." In other words, in order to understand how someone else constructs the world you have to have the courage to set aside what you, yourself, already know to be true and deeply listen to what, and how, another person constructs their world.

Think about this in your own life for a second. How often do we take in something new we are presented with (a conversation, new data, something we see) and just file it immediately into what I think of an "experiential rut" in our minds? More often than not, we don't really even listen to what the other person is saying when we respond, we think about how what the other person is saying applies to what we already know to be true and then you comment on it. Listen to the conversations around you on a daily basis and see if this isn't the norm.

Roger Schank, who used to teach at Northwestern and writes a good deal about the relationship between story-telling and intelligence writes, "We match new events to stories we already know that are not exactly like those stories. We might, for example, recall an earlier attempt to get a teacher to change a grade while thinking about getting our boss to change his or her salary decision...To do this, we must be capable of thinking of stories we have acquired in he past to see if one of them matches closely enough to what we need to know. Thus, partial matching of one story to another is a critical aspect of human intelligence." By this theory, "the more successfully you adapt old stories, the more creative you are." My point here is that much of our daily life seems to revolve around adapting our own experience to what comes at us day to day, not imagining someone else's stories. We don't empathize, we match up someone else's experience so that it fits our own.

So, when you think about the process of taking on someone else's world view it is a pretty scary proposition--you have to destroy or annihilate what you know in order to experience something new. However, for a less threatening, and wildly humorous, view of the use of negative capability in casual conversation I would urge you to watch Woody Allen and Diane Keaton's interchange in an art gallery in Manhattan.

I realized  that there may be some good reasons for Emily to be anxious about practicing empathy. Empathy appears to be a dangerous business. Keats, in fact, confirms Emily's fears in another letter when he writes, "A poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no identity--he is continually in for--and filling some other Body--The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them unchangeable attribute--the poet has none; no identity--he has no self." It sounds a bit like Walt Whitman in stanza 6 of Leaves of Grass or Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, doesn't it? In order to fully understand what someone else understands you have to sacrifice your own self in the sense that you have to be willing to give up what you think is true; you have to enter into "not knowing." It may well be an act of imagination that requires what some therapists describe as an self-annihilation.

As we went through the rest of the semester, Emily and I heard many of the literary authors we met with at CITYterm echo what Donald Barthelme has written in a volume called Not-Knowing, "Writing is a process of dealing with not-knowing, a forcing of what and how. We have all heard novelists testify to the fact that, beginning a new book, they are utterly baffled as to how to proceed, what should be written and how it might be written, even though they have done a dozen of them before." And the repeated chorus of these authors reiterating the same sentiment began to give Emily some confidence that not knowing was less permanent than it had felt before. She began to see empathy as not about being correct or completely accurate, but rather about getting as close as one could to the desired object. It was like watching her move from doing arithmetic to doing calculus-- from the idea of getting the right answer to the concept of gaining a more precise understanding of something or someone.

At the beginning of the semester Emily's attempts to practice empathy in her own writing looked more like descriptions of other people trying to act like Emily. But once she realized that if she could just put aside the "irritable reaching after fact and reason" that she could come out with a "positive capability" of getting closer to understanding how someone else constructs the world, then her anxiety lessened.

I think I learned from Emily that empathy is an imaginative act in a different way than sympathy and schadenfreude are. I think I also came to appreciate how scary being empathetic can be. And finally, I came to realize that "creative writing" might really be as much about confronting "negative capability" and becoming increasingly comfortable with "not-knowing" as it is about giving people a chance to be creative and express themselves.

What I found perhaps most surprising throughout this investigation is that empathy is usually presented as being a positive embracing of other people's views; it is a pretty warm and fuzzy business the way lots of people describe it. What Emily (and Keats) got me thinking about was how the empathetic act might also necessitate a submerging, perhaps even an aggressive obscuring of the self that might easily be seen as scary, unnerving--even terrifying. The most highly successful programs teaching empathy seem to be focused on the pre-adolescent population. Why is that, I wonder? And would a program for teenagers need to contain a more "Keatsian" element of not knowing?

My task is to now figure out where else I can develop this sense of "not-knowing" as an active precursor to the "positive capability" that might lead to empathy.

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