Friday, March 05, 2010

empathy through individuation

This complements last month’s posting on genuineness in learning from the experience of others, as well as briefly addressing—one could argue (as I would)—the basis of caring about and desiring to care for others,
in parenting, teaching, and ethical life.

I’ve valued empathy as long as I can remember. As a kid, I preferred girls as friends to boys, and most all of my friends over the years have been women. (To my mind, Carol Gilligan was a great milestone, early ‘80s onward).

Empathy is intrinsic to us, if one is fully alive to oneself, in oneself, with others. But years teach—as any good parent or good teacher (or psychotherapist) knows—that what you “see” through empathy can be very different from what another sees of herself, himself. One is wise to yield to learning from the other. One’s wise to appreciate need to teach others who one is (outgrow childish presumption). So, the other (and oneself to the other) is likely a shared composition, pertaining to we as well.

Parenting which reliably exemplifies empathy and supports maturation of empathy is so important for individuation that makes a good life. I’ve suggested that appreciation of the world generally derives from appreciation of other persons, in light of which we personify inanimate treasures or find a sense of nature attending to us or eliciting our appreciation. (High individuation departs from the home that launches it, which can only be anticipated in the departing, not by home. A new sense of being arrives along the way by which one’s feeling for the world might be highly enriched so beyond very good beginnings.)

But, as days go by, there’s often not a lot of room for empathy, so appreciation can become abstracted, as if beginning there to recover an inhabitation. So, highly valuing empathy is highly recalling oneself, as if standing from a fall. Highly valuing empathy is “simply” a matter of appreciating who we are or who one is at best, and highly identifying with that or holding resolute fidelity to that value. Such appreciation is a retrieval of belonging to an intrinsic part of our being.

A need to have empathy for others follows from high valuation of empathy. But again, a sense of need is abstracted from its natural belonging. No need is realized as such if one easily has empathy, i.e., empathy belongs to one’s sense of Self. A moment calling for empathy elicits empathy because empathy feels naturally important.

A need to give empathy follows from that value possessing one, so to speak, rather than from desire to receive empathy. But mutuality or reciprocity is also worthy of high valuation; so desire to receive empathy—to have empathy in that sense—would follow from high valuation of empathy and mutuality.

Presumably, one doesn’t withhold empathy when another’s need is recognized. Persons who don’t recognize the need (or can’t—let alone those who choose to withhold empathy) are interesting in a clinical sense. Feeling their lack may elicit empathy for that. A kind of reparenting can be called for that lets the other’s real self come into play, so that empathy may be regained and matured.

This note on empathy isn’t intended to capture the subject, rather to indicate its importance to me and nearness to mind, relative to thinking about ethical life and the inestimable value of relationship (loves of sundry kinds) for individuation, about which I’ll be writing rather eccentrically (about individuation as such) in coming days.

The sense of individuation I want to render is not individualist. But it’s also not conformist or sociocentric. It’s quite postconventional. It easily seems abstracted from belonging with other persons, but I don’t see it that way. Nonetheless, though individuation is by no means the whole of meaningful life, of living fruitfully, high individuation (especially relative to a creative life) is like an axis of telic weaving for one’s life, centripetal to one’s flourishing—feeling life through one’s ownmost Sense of the world, sensual, richly emotional, and, too, intellectual.