I struggle with anxiety, but it never comes from what I write. I become anxious at least once a day, but not over what I say. My chest can turn so tight from anxieties’ grip that I can choke on air, but it has never been from the contents of my work. That all changed two weeks ago, when I had to stop working on a news article for Niv’s second issue.
I intended to write a non-partisan and objective piece investigating how Jewish organizations with differing perspectives on anti-Semitism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict choose to employ and conjure empathy as they advocate for their causes. I wanted to explore if conversations could take place between organizations who sit on opposing sides of the aisle.
However, the problem was the beat of my piece was empathy.
The word empathy in English only emerged at the beginning of the 20th century, mostly in regards to art. According to Sara D. Hodges and Michael W. Myers in the Encyclopedia of Social Psychology, empathy comes from the German word Einfühlung which translates to “feeling into”.
What I find so effective about empathy is that it isn’t about agreeing, it is about using our imagination to understand how an opposing view was formed. As Hodges and Myers state, empathy is “often defined as understanding another person’s experience by imagining oneself in that other person’s situation.” However, how we individually feelingly-fall into the minds and emotions of who we try to understand doesn’t come from a finite empathetic form. Empathy exists on a spectrum, moving between or simultaneously with emotional or cognitive responses.
Emotional responses consist of three components: feeling the same emotion as another person, feeling distressed by someone else’s hardship(s) whether or not you feel their same emotion, and lastly, is compassion. While cognitive empathy refers to the empathizer knowing they have “successfully guessed someone else’s thoughts and feelings.”
I wanted to explore these measures because I want to encourage more opportunities for empathy to occur on a socio, political, and economic level between differing sides of any aisle (left, right, up, down, horizontally, vertically, diagonally, criss-cross). I want to know why it is so hard to find empathy these days, and I’ve wanted to create opportunities for empathetic moments. What divides us should not erase our ability to hold discussions as empathy can give hope by starting conversation(s).
I follow politics, but I don’t write about politics, I only wanted to write a piece that is concerned with feelings not with the political ramifications of feelings—I do not want to instigate a political conversation. But as I started to unravel my points, the naïve veil I unconsciously placed over myself was lifted, and I quickly realized there was a chance my words could become politicized. Then I panicked to exhaustion, and panicked some more over all the “what ifs”.
But I was mistaken to think I could write about empathy as an absolute and therefore utopic solution. I only wanted to realize my goal of writing a piece that would show we can choose to have empathetic relationships with those we disagree with.
It should not matter how my words would be interpreted, and though my intentions for the article were good, I cannot risk deepening the divide, even if the consequences would have only lived as thoughts in my head.
I write without ever caring what anyone will think, but I do not have the stomach to write political pieces that could create more division. Even the possibility of my words possibly being damaging kept me up at night, sick with anxiety. I had been eager to complete an uplifting, peaceful, and unifying report that may very well only be able to exist in my dreams.
My faith in empathy, or rather, my determination to make everyone and everything fit into an empathetic narrative blinded me. Empathy was my bias; I was focused on advocating for empathy when I should have been simply following a story. I was so busy trying to find the slightest crack for empathy to flower, that I wasn’t being empathetic to the organizations or to our readers.
In the Talmud Rav Dimi asks “Why are the Sages compared to a nut,” to then respond “It is to teach you that just a nut may be covered with mud and dirt, but [the fruit] inside is not spoiled, so a Sage may have turned astray, but the Torah [within him] is not spoiled . Who is astray is subjective, and though we are not Sages, we are people just like them; our mistakes, our failures, what we do and do not know, what makes us afraid, or weak, or strong, does not erase the value each of us hold or what connects us to our faith.
I don’t know if empathy can solve everything, but I know admitting what I do not know, and what I am incapable of doing is okay. Empathy does not always equal sincerity, I know that first hand. I am guilty of performing empathy just because I don’t want to hurt someone, or if I’m not brave enough to question them. But I am still curious to see where empathy could lead us in any facet of our lives, I just won’t prematurely state it can solve all problems.
The world is political, worrisome, imperfect, beautiful, complicated, and bound to the unknown. I don’t know if empathy can liberate. I don’t know if anything is safe from politicization. I don’t know if I want these answers, for the presence of absence and inconclusiveness allows us to hope.
*The views and opinions reflected in this article belong solely to the author, and do not reflect Niv’s.
Header image design/photograph by Orly Zebak.
Orly Zebak writes, designs sets and costumes, and makes art in various mediums. Her work seeks to challenge conceptions of female performativity in relation to womanhood, girlhood, and coming of age stories. In her spare time, you can catch Orly gardening—usually in her very comfortable off-brand crocs.
Orly earned her M.A. at the University of Toronto in Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies.