“I’m so disappointed in you” my voice trembled as I tightly gripped the kitchen table, trying to fight my urge to run. Tears stung my eyes and I started to feel dizzy with shock, rage and betrayal. Meanwhile my father sat motionless, muttering his nostalgic arguments of the British Empire and imperialism. Over the time it takes to boil the kettle, my father had transformed from my next to kin to the other.
Our World feels increasingly fragmented, with symbolic and real walls and borders being erected to maintain the boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them’. As a Kleinian therapist said to me recently, we are living in a paranoid schizoid age. Everything is seen as black and white, right or wrong. You need to pick a side. You’re either with us or against us. Looking for the grey or finding the middle ground is just not an option. This unfortunately is no new phenomenon, as Sir Isaac Newton once wrote, “we build too many walls and not enough bridges”.
Empathy has long been attributed as the required bridge between the oppositional sides of I and the other. Writer Rebecca Solnit explains “empathy is a narrative we tell ourselves to make other people real to us… To be without empathy is to have shut down or killed off some part of yourself and…breaks this social contract of recognizing another’s humanity and our connectedness.”
Our World feels increasingly fragmented, with symbolic and real walls and borders being erected to maintain the boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them’.
Empathy is a key component to the therapeutic relationship (being one the core conditions of the person centred approach). It is often described as when the therapist suspends their own known reality so that they can walk along side the client, experiencing the World as the client does. There are limits, however, as to how far we can achieve this empathetic state. As theorist Judith Butler states, “Your story is never my story.” I might be able to walk along side my client, but I can’t fully appreciate what it is to really walk in their shoes, day after day. But what we can achieve together is our relationship. To create and remain in relationship with the other, especially when no commonality exists, is paramount for progress and healing.
And so back to the kitchen with my father and the emotive topic of the EU referendum. So sure had I been that he was ‘one of us’ (a Remainer) that I didn’t think twice about asking which way he voted on June 23rd 2016. My erroneous assumption of familial solidarity left me with emotional whiplash.
The next hour or so was incredibly tough. I felt trapped on an emotional rollercoaster with no emergency break. I cried, shouted, tried to reason and defend, but still no common ground emerged between our opposing sides.
My projection of the average leave voter being an ignorant, prejudiced fan of Farage was being challenged as I gazed upon my 77 year old dad, badly disabled from a stroke, facing the Winter of his life. You don’t need to be a psychotherapist to make an educated guess as to his motivations for voting to leave. He desperately wanted to “take back control” in whatever way he could. My empathy towards him grew and began to bridge the space between us. Looking beyond my judgement required effort. As Carl Jung said, “ thinking is difficult, that’s why most people judge.”
Despite our rigid oppositional forces, we both stayed in relationship with one another.
However I believe something far more powerful than just empathy appeared as we debated across the kitchen table, letting our tea stew. Despite our rigid oppositional forces, we both stayed in relationship with one another. Despite my urge to run away (i.e. achieve physical distance from I and the Other), I felt in my heart that I had to remain (excuse the pun). I needed to stay in relationship despite the absence of any agreement. I needed to transform my raging fire into light, into love.
Philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas suggested that Otherness couldn’t be understood or contained, explaining, “If one could possess, grasp, and know the other, it would not be other.” For Levinas, whose family were killed in the Holocaust, Otherness marks the presence of the divine through the uniqueness of every human face.
Something of the divine was present amongst us that day in the kitchen. I sensed a radiant light emerge through the tears, anger and despair. Like welcomed sunshine after the storm has passed. We weren’t going to concede our positions but through our emotionally charged discussion we had become so much more alive and connected to each other. And that for me is the essence of love. A far greater antidote to otherness than just tea and empathy.