IMAGINE Magazine-Spring2016 - Page 25

PEACEFUL PONDERING In a Manner of Speaking by Michelle Easson, educator, activist, and social anthropologist T he philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer tells how on one very cold day, several porcupines huddled close together for warmth. Because their spines made proximity a prickly matter, they distanced themselves, but became cold. After much repositioning and trial and error, they finally settled on the ideal distance at which they could both warm themselves and avoid getting pricked. This discovery they made was thereafter called good manners. Good manners not only benefit those to whom they are extended, but also those who practice them. Civility and decency are humble virtues foundational to the philosophy of living life with dignity. The aphorism “a rising tide lifts all boats” refers to the same principle: when we interact with others in a dignified manner, they too are elevated. While most of us believe this to be true in principle, something seems to get lost in translation between theory and practice. We do not have to look far to find examples of a general decline in courtesy and decorum in social interactions, though we may wonder what truly accounts for this uptick in discord and disrespect. daughter, Polly Post, has come out with a new, completely revised and updated edition. She addresses hundreds of key etiquette concerns: dealing with rudeness, etiquette, noxious neighbors, and road rage, among others. There is even a timely section on argument and disagreement, as they may arise in debates. She states that spirited arguments over political issues can help open-minded people refine their positions, and goes on to suggest holding congenial debriefings and encourages participants to practice emotional regulation. Her well-mannered heart seems to go out to us in sympathy, even though she may consider we poorly mannered a curious and self-destructive lot. The topic of sympathy appears in several sections and she offers many tips: what to say, how to best express it, what not to say, and when to leave well enough alone. One topic missing from this handbook on manners is empathy. Apparently, empathy, unlike sympathy, is not to be subjected to rules of etiquette, leaving us to wonder if we are meant to be left to explore this subject on our own. Further evidence of empathy dif- We seem increasingly to be a nation unable to mind its manners. Emily Post’s Etiquette has long been the definitive guide to manners, ever since the first edition was published in 1922. Emily’s grand- fering from sympathy in a fundamental way, is its categorical exclusion from the greeting card section of any stationer’s shop or local grocery store. This omission suggests that, while sympathy can be stated on a card and expressed in words, empathy requires something more of us. What true empathetic response requires is skill. Skill and greater consciousness, and perhaps resilience. We must be able to imagine another’s unique emotional state, to feel her feelings, and be able to understand her situation from her perspective. While sympathy is relatively time-limited, as expressed in response to a loss or other unfortunate situation, empathy is an emotional engagement that can run riot and burn us out emotionally. While sympathy is feeling (sorry) for another, empathy is feeling with them. It is an emotional abiding with, requiring us to feel what the other is feeling and see the situation as the other sees it, through their eyes, rather than through our own. So what does it mean to be empathetic in the social realm, and how does empathy function in a social context? If you have ever listened to an interview with an actor—whose very job is empathy—you may have heard a similar comment on the craft and skill required, that portraying a character in such a way as to do justice to his dignity requires a submergence into the world of that character, his emotional reality, the thoughts and feelings and history of experiences that make him who he is. When we empathize with another, we begin a process of transformation in which we set ourselves aside, along with our ego and ideologies, judgments and agendas. What we know is that we are more empathetic towards others who look like us, with whom we share identifiable traits and attitudes and who we can imagine being part of our tribe or community. It is this tendency to which actors refer when they say IMAGINE l SPRING 2016 25