Stephen Batchelor on the life-warming (and highly learnable) skill known as empathy.
In every human encounter, even with a stranger, you have the capacity to close down or open up. Let's say you have an appointment in a bank, and the employee seems distracted, strangely distant, and unconcerned with your affairs. He keeps forgetting what you just told him. Your frustration mounts. You start to feel angry. "Why do they hire such incompetents?" you wonder. The man excuses himself and hurries outside. Moments later the manager appears. She explains that her colleague's wife and child have been seriously injured in a car crash. The wife is in a coma, the youngster on life support. Your anger vanishes and is replaced by compassion.
Anytime you meet someone, you have a choice. You can stubbornly insist on seeing him in relation to your own desires—in the case of the bank employee, as an obstacle and a pain in the neck. Or you can regard him as a creature just like you who longs for happiness and yearns to be free of anxiety and pain. You can embrace the totality of the other person or cut him off by only paying attention to those aspects of his behavior that affect you at a given moment.
All religions offer ways of keeping open our connections with others. They challenge our limiting, self-centered views of people by encouraging us to see them as children of God, as Christs, or Buddhas. This doesn't mean that you turn a blind eye to a person's incompetence. It implies that children of God or potential Buddhas can suffer tragedies, make unkind remarks, and fail to perform the tasks with which they are charged. Rather than defining them in terms of one particular failing, we recognize how they embody boundless possibilities. The person who deeply irritates you in one context turns out to be sensitive, wise, and loving in another.
We all know difficult people. I have only to glimpse such a person from afar, and immediately everything about her repels me: the slant of her mouth, the shrug of her shoulders, the tone of her voice, the cut of her dress. Although she has a husband, children, and friends, it's inconceivable to me that they could love such a woman. The power of my antipathy freezes her inside an image that seems fixed for eternity.
Then I recall how just a few months ago, merely to think of her would bring a warm smile to my face. What changed? The trouble might have started with nothing more than a careless barbed remark or an insensitive comment that opened up an old wound. As that hurt began to fester, steadily fueled by new suspicions and resurrected grievances, my perception of her shifted. The friend I impatiently longed to see again was transformed into someone I would go to any lengths to avoid.
The way you perceive someone in your mind's eye is intimately linked to the way you feel about that person. In remembering how you saw an estranged friend before you had a change of heart, you might glimpse the moment when the connection between you was severed.
To remember this bigger picture, even in the midst of mounting anger and frustration, enables us to retain the capacity to empathize. As long as you can imagine what it might be like inside another person's skin, you keep open the doorway of possible intimacy. As you gaze into another's eyes, you can encounter both a fear of and yearning for such connection. We all long to be able to break down the barriers that we initially insist others respect.
Human beings experience their deepest, most poignant moments of connection through intimacy: We let someone into our lives, and they allow us to enter theirs. Yet for intimacy to grow, the other person must also remain a mystery. Over time, familiarity with close friends can imperceptibly crystallize into fixed images of them. We start to define them in terms of our own needs and desires instead of theirs. No matter how well we know and trust someone, we cannot afford the complacency of taking that person for granted. Even a beloved partner in a lifelong relationship can be capricious and unpredictable. If love isn't nurtured in the soil of unconditional openness, it can succumb to stagnation.
In the moment of shutting off or turning away from another, we can feel the sting of intimacy betrayed. An awareness of having failed to treat the other as an equal, or, in the language of religion, as Christ or Buddha, flashes through our mind. Then in the next moment, we find ourselves startled by the suffering of a stranger. Suddenly, we feel connected to the starving child in Sudan or the homeless person on the sidewalk, and we experience the astonishment of belonging to a body of life that infinitely exceeds our own. The numbness of alienation gives way to the mystery of participation. Closure is replaced by openness. Intimacy is realized in wholly giving oneself while wholly receiving the gift of the other.