From the Empathy Gym | Empathy Heals

From the Empathy Gym | Empathy Heals


Bill English, Artistic Director

As 2019 begins, our nation remains ripped in half. Divided into camps, we refuse to understand the other side, so that the hatred between parties has become far more damaging than the agenda of either side. We cannot even hear the arguments of our adversaries, having enemized the opposition to the point where there literally seems to be no way to agree about anything. Our culture is deeply wounded with no healing in sight. And this macrocosm trickles down to the microcosm of families. Who among us doesn’t have brothers or aunts or grandparents to whom we can hardly speak because differing from us politically makes us feel we must hate them. Brother against brother.

My brother is very conservative, I quite liberal, and we have had many destructive political fights, suffering years of eye-rolling, alienation and name-calling. Over the holidays, we got into it again, but somehow, a glimmer of wisdom knifed through the darkness. After a passionate, table-pounding polemic from one of us and a scary moment of silence, the other one (I forget which) opened their mouth and out fluttered the most healing of words, “I understand where you’re coming from.” Another silence. And a breath from the original polemicizer, followed by a torrent of, “you have no idea how much that means to me.” I think all of you despise us and think we are idiots. We have real lives, and fears and yearnings. And suddenly, we both could breathe, and a slow dawn lit up the tense night between us. We didn’t ever agree, but we sat there for a few hours, really listening to each other and a healing blossomed in spite of our disagreement. Empathy > understanding.

How do we understand? Not in the merely factual sense of knowing how to do a mathematical computation or how to direct a play, but in the deeper, organism-altering, visceral way in which we really “know” what drives another person. What do they yearn for, what are they afraid of? There is only one way to do that. Empathy. To roll up your sleeves and get in there, inside the perhaps brittle shell of another and feel along with them. And as I said in a previous blog, that can really hurt, as we really feel the fear and suffering of someone else, be it a character in a play or a live human.

The empathy we practice in the theatre inevitably leads to deeper understanding. But there is another step on the way to healing, especially when it comes to those with whom we violently disagree or those who have done real harm.  We must forgive. In the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu’s wonderful book, “The Book of Joy,” they lay out this universal cycle for us. Tutu, who suffered horribly, imprisoned by the perpetrators of apartheid in South Africa, could only find peace by empathizing with his torturers, understanding the terror that must have been driving them and forgiving them. Only then, could he heal. When I first read this, I was aghast, that such a level of humanity was possible. I couldn’t imagine myself being capable of such forgiveness.

What role does forgiveness play in the theatre? Can we forgive theatrical villains by bravely walking in their shoes? Or are we being nurtured to build understanding in the theatre that empowers us to forgive in our real lives? I thought of forgiveness recently while watching Mary Poppins. George Banks starts the play as a sexist, misogynist pig. His wife, Winifred, is so under his thumb she can barely breathe, and we can feel the palpable rage hissing inside Abby Haug’s layered performance. She cannot understand why her husband behaves the way he does until she sees the reality behind his hero-worship of the evil Miss Andrews. Understanding how he was clearly victimized by the monstrous nanny enables Winifred to understand him. When she sees the frail, terrified little boy inside her blustering husband, she is able to forgive him, and their family can be healed.

Empathy leads to understanding, leads to forgiveness, leads to healing. Of course, forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting, or that justice is not necessary. But in the theatre and in life, empathy is the path to understanding. And even in our polarized country, understanding can lead to forgiveness and reconciliation. In the courtroom trial for Dylann Roof, members of the victims’ families stood up to publicly forgive him. As they put it, “We have no room for hate, so we have to forgive.” They could not forgive him without seeing him as human, without understanding that he suffered. As we creep tentatively into 2019, let’s look closely at how our work in the empathy gym can lead to healing.

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Bill English is Artistic Director and Co-Founder of San Francisco Playhouse, and in twenty years with Susi Damilano, has guided its growth from a bare-bones storefront to the second-largest theater in San Francisco.

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Patricia Davis - 01. Feb, 2019 - Reply

I love your essay. But I had trouble feeling empathy for the two women who were doing phone scamming from elderly people in the play The Roommate. It seemed to be exactly taking advantage of the empathy others, vulnerable sweet old others. They found it exhilarating to steal from these old people. Isn’t that sociopathy and isn’t sociopathy something that cannot be cured?

Ann Winters - 01. Feb, 2019 - Reply

So good to see another “Empathy Gym” entry – it seems it’s been far too long!!

Jon Richards - 01. Feb, 2019 - Reply

Yes, these days many of us are trying to find it in ourselves to empathize with those who continue to support the unsupportable. And it is very difficult, especially living in our cocoons, as we do. The empathy gym helps. Thank you for that.
A piece of the problem is unhelpful enjoyment. My brother-in-law confessed that he continues to spout Obama-birther nonsense “Because I enjoy it.” On the other side of that coin, we/I feel enjoyment when ‘the other” gets knocked down a peg, as with the recent shutdown cave-in.
I suppose I cannot stifle my enjoyment. Perhaps the best I can do is to keep it to myself.

Margaret A Miller - 01. Feb, 2019 - Reply

This is the best you have done yet!!! If only all would read and learn a simple lesson!

Arlene Cohen - 01. Feb, 2019 - Reply

You are so you are so right On, Bill. I will print this and share it with my friends and hopefully live by It.

Gerald Besses - 02. Feb, 2019 - Reply

It is not possible for me to understand people who separate parents from children and then lock children in cages, or believe in civil rights only for the wealthy, as they do for Roger Stone, but not people seeking asylum from violence, or people who believe that poor immigrants from war torn countries are more dangerous than nuclear armed nations that tell us that they are our enemies. There are people who believe that being a self described sexual abuser is a qualification for high office in our government and other people who believe that our Constitution of checks and balances means that their political party is more important than the welfare of our country. The current country is not the one that I grew up to believe in and people who believe these things are anathema to me.
I do not believe that theater can defend the value of making our water and air dirty and pestilent so that a company can make more money for its share holders.
I want clean government that believes in personal liberty for all, not just the wealthy. I do not want a government that actively attempts to prevent people from voting. People who believe that all these hateful issues are best served by making wealthy people more wealthy will not be converted with even the best theater production.

Joe Koman - 02. Feb, 2019 - Reply

Please send this to Trump and Pelosi and Schumer!!! We need them to truly sit down and see where the other one is coming from.

Jessica Powell - 02. Feb, 2019 - Reply

Wow; so, so true.

Veronica Kiefer - 02. Feb, 2019 - Reply

Are you open to sharing this essay on Facebook? It is a beautiful essay with an important message. Living and loving is more important than winning the argument.

John Sheridan - 04. Feb, 2019 - Reply

As always, you have managed to articulate what I am thinking or feeling…I know that for me, it took a while to get to that place- I don’t know why, exactly….but I know it to be true for me.
The forgiveness part is tricky- but is the most important part of the process. And we must not forget nor forgo justice.
Well written, thought provoking and I thank you.

F. W. Steiner - 04. Feb, 2019 - Reply

Well said, Bill. What saddens me most about our political milieu is the scarcity of civility, and as a citizenry, we’ve largely forgotten our erstwhile gift for civil dissent. But you’ve penned a mover, Bill.

Yeah, it’s okay to disagree, it’s okay to opine, it’s okay to emote, and it’s okay to fully believe those who espouse the contrarian view are Just. Plain. Wrong.

It’s not okay to think the other guy’s stupid or to consign him to the -ist/-phob/-ism landfill for the simple crime of disagreeing. We’ve all got our life experiences that have honed our respective world views, and a mistake most of us make (me, too…) is believing we each pack the gear to change the other’s mind. We don’t, which brings out the narrow-thinking in people across the spectrum. Well, there’s no monopoly on intellect, and ignorance abounds at every seat on our political tilt-a-whirl. So be it, but brilliant lights also exist at every point along the yardstick- we just have our welder’s shades on sometimes. You don’t, and that’s both singular and admirable. For a German fighting man, I mean.