A Global Empathy

‘You understand so little of what is around you because you do not use what is within you.’

Hildegard von Bingen

The challenge of living empathically in today’s frenetic globalised economy is something I've been thinking and writing about since the release of Tawai. As the film makes its way out into the world, and is watched by an increasingly diverse audience, the idea of a universal empathy that transcends the borders of self and nation becomes more and more relevant. This article explores some of the questions that arise as the wisdom of the forest meets the city centres in which the film is shown.

What effect does the speed and distance of our lives have as we reach into the quiet of our hearts?

Does this hitherto unknown level of global connectivity help or further challenge us as we try and know ourselves through our bodies rather than just our minds? 

What are the challenges we face as a landless tribe working towards a globally empathic way of living?

In Tawai we witness the profound empathy of the Penan – some of the last remaining nomadic hunter-gatherers still living in the old-growth forests of Borneo, who locate their identity in the forest that is their home. The Penan find themselves in the call of the birds, the turn of the rivers, and the strength of the rocks and trees that give them shelter, warmth and food. The needs of the animals and plants are inseparable from their own, and this profound interconnectivity gives rise to their expression 'tawai' – a term that describes this symbiotic connection with the forest that sustains them. 

The Penan’s light-footed way of living is rich with wisdom, and the film draws much of its sustenance by observing the deep-rooted empathy of their lives in the forest. In this way of seeing, blood and sap merge until the life of the forest and those that live in it are one. Neither above nor below anything else, each is simply part of the whole. It is a way of experiencing the world that burrows far deeper than the ‘imagining’ of another’s experience that so commonly defines Western empathic understanding.

But how, as we travel back to our towns and cities, do we translate the beautiful simplicity of this message - to love one’s environment as one’s self – into the many languages of the metropolis, where neighbour, food, shelter and clothing come from places far away? In a hard-edged world that often shuts nature out and no longer freely offers sustenance and shelter, how can we reconnect so that we can truly empathise with our environment too?

The writer Richard Rohr describes the human person as being ‘a microcosm with a natural affinity for, or resonance with, its macrocosm, which many call God. Our little world, he says, reflects the big world…

The epic journey from the little world of our inner lives to the vast world of the cosmos, is like a stone dropped in the ocean. A movement that spreads in concentric rings from our bodies out onto the land on which we stand, rippling into our communities, towns and cities, before finding the countries and continents that make up the ‘big world’ of the earth.

And the world is brought to us these days, entering our homes with every Amazon delivery, even as we explore its hidden reaches from our sofas through the screens of our phones and computers. These endless waves of coming and going mean that we do not need to stand on the shore and scan the horizon for the ship that brings news of far-off places. The news is available, 24 hours a day, a narrow stream of information that gives shape to peoples idea of life here on earth. The whole world is with us, at all times, only a single click away.

Our relationship then, with the world out there, is more immediate and dynamic than ever. The ability to engage with people and places in far off lands a fact of modern life. But as our travel and buying habits reflect this globalised way of living, we must face the fact that our individual lives are becoming ever more atomised and Tawai suggests a reengagement with the wisdom of our bodies, understood in relationship to our environment, as a way of treading a new path. This throws up a challenge for many of us, whose lives are fed and nourished by places so far away. The global trade that feeds our urban centres is run on lines of unbelievable speed and distance, and in the city there is often little or no connection with the food and materials that sustain and nourish us.  Living there means buying food that comes from other places. To do this consciously one must imagine places and the people who have worked to bring us the food and clothing we rely on (not to mention all the other things we buy). The result of this is that our buying choices (for many the most powerful means of activism at our disposal) ask us to see way beyond our environment and imagine the world as a whole. A golden opportunity, it seems, to bring forth a global empathy.

An example of this happened just yesterday. I stood in a shop that sells organic food, run by a group of conscientious people who buy produce that can be traced to source. But even as I stood in front of the mindful rows of beans, lentils and coconut oil, I noticed my mind whirring. What is the state of the coconut trade in Thailand? Is quinoa sustainable? How many miles did this turmeric travel? The questions are easy to parody – the privileged angst of a middle-class hippy – but it was not these that gave me cause for reflection, rather what I noticed happening to my mind and body. My little world spun as I tried to hold the enormity of the big world within. Confusion mounted as I tried to give shape to places too diverse, too far away, to fall into a map by which I could navigate my buying choices, all the while ignoring the simple call of a hungry stomach. I had come to this shop so that I didn’t support the big supermarkets, avoided plastic, didn’t mindlessly consume meat. But I was still unable to feed myself without entering a state of angst. Who grew these things? What are their lives like? What is their land like? There were so many questions and because I couldn’t know the answers, I could only imagine.

This experience of trying to think empathically, often feels more like an intellectual exercise rather than a deeply felt impulse. It asks for a kind of emotive ventriloquism that takes the feelings we hold here, and tries to place them there. We can usually only imagine such a thing with our minds – the super-egoic ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ of parental diktat. In a world in which global trade feeds our cities, this way of thinking can exacerbate the dissociated experience of modern life. Trying to feel the myriad foods and materials we come into contact with every day is only possible when you take yourself away from where you are now and place your mind somewhere else. 

I had a very different experience this morning. Out before breakfast I walked to the edge of the city I live in, where a river runs through some woods, and spent a quiet hour filling a basket with wild garlic, its warm scent rising up to meet me in easy greeting. Further down there was a huge stretch of nettles teething, shark-like, between the fallen trees. I picked cleavers that clung to my clothes like crazed fans, young wild chervil, dangerous in its resemblance to poisonous hemlock. These urban plants were not looking as vibrant as their country cousins – there was a plastic bag caught in the crook of a tree and a single shoe lying forlorn on the track – but the land was speaking it's language and the birds overhead were streeping their replies. The early sun was slanting through the trees and the sound of the river moving slowly took my thoughts with it...There was nothing to take me away from where I was. And as my eyes slowly scanned the leaves, my feet walked ever more slowly, careful not to disturb the peace of which I had become a piece. I knelt to pick some sorrel and it was a position of reverence...I ate a leaf and the sharp tang was a sacrament…

I believe we are, despite our ability to move, essentially rooted beings. The speed of our lives has left us like nomads whose feet barely touch the ground and it is simple experiences like these that feed our body the information it needs to know that it is home. Our bodies, after all, can only know what they experience. Our senses long to tell us about where we are – the land under our feet, the plants offering their scent and taste, the birds moving above us – feeding that information into the wisdom of our guts and overall wellbeing.  These are the things that give rise to the kith that is ready to join the strong kinship we already feel for our friends and family.

Hildegard von Bingen suggests that we ‘understand so little of what is around us because we use so little of what is within us.’ This rich idea holds true in the light of an embodied empathy that dwells in the very core of our little world, before it might radiate outwards to take in the big world as a whole. Perhaps before people are able to truly feel the needs of a forest on the other side of the world, they must befriend the trees in the parks and streets on which they live. Before flying around the world to save what’s over there, we must first take tender care of what’s here. If we don't hold the small strip of woodland at the edge of the railway track on which we travel to work with any kind of reverence, how can we do so elsewhere? Can we protect the habitats of birds in other countries when we don’t recognise the voices of those who sing to us every day? Can we honour the name of the farmer who grows our tropical fruit, when we don’t know the name of the person behind the till in the shop where his produce is sold?

The answer is not one that can be laid out in a neat line. But it seems to me that in exploring the little world we have immediately around us, be it the parks near our houses, the growing schemes in our areas, the communities that run like mycelium through suburban streets, we can begin the important work of reconnection that will give us the strength to feel, in ever greater waves, a deep empathy for the big world out there. A tree is a tree whether it stands alone on a street corner or amidst the wonder of a forest, the earth is still alive beneath the layers of concrete, and the birds that wing above the jagged rooftops still sing with a joyous abandon.

The size and speed of our lives make a successful global empathy a deep challenge. The ever-present longing for a loving economy built on fair and nourishing exchange, is alive in most of us. But to buy, as we do, from places that are both diverse and distant, is to enter into a clash of intention and capacity. Our hearts, perhaps, have not caught up with the speed at which technology is taking us. And rather than attempting to catch up, running ever faster so that the world becomes a blur, perhaps we need to travel more slowly, carefully feeling the ground beneath our feet. To buy locally, buy seasonally, to walk wherever it is that you sleep and spend your days. There is abundance in our midst that is ignored because we have been told a story of scarcity. We need to begin with the richness of the little world that’s here, so that in feeling the land around us, however tired, bedraggled and road-crossed it may be, we can successfully travel the distance to the big world out there as well.

By Tamara Colchester