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Brief Excerpt from

The Question of Empathy

Carol Jeffers


     I have come to understand such connections as manifestations of the processes of empathy at work, a demonstration of our innate capacity to empathize and our will to survive as a species. In a metaphorical sense, these connections act as nodes in the human rhizome, enabling us to feel rooted, secure in understanding our own situations, while sending out shoots that drive us to reach beyond, to bridge the gaps and understand the situations of others. But I have also found that empathy can be as elusive as the breeze in a bamboo forest, whispering, stirring us at times, and leaving us to fall silent at others. Listen with care, it tells us, and we will know empathy is there, in our roots, our synapses, in the tea ceremony, in the human dance. Empathy quivers within and through our biology, rustling among societies like so many entangled roots. We can see it in a brain scan, in a pair of well-worn shoes, or a seaside bench. We also know its power from images of a slave ship, the falling towers, and that historic 2008 election night in Chicago’s Grant Park. And based on what the neuroscientists, psychologists, and philosophers have said, we might even imagine how empathy thrives in the thickets between nature and culture, favoring neither one nor the other, but both.


     Empathy sprouts everywhere, rhizomic and undaunted by the rise of “cultural narcissism,” unjust political structures and corrupt economies; and takes hold in that place between the individual and the collective, between thought and feeling. Marked only by misty boundaries, this borderland opens new, if uneasy spaces that encourage anyone, everyone to reach for the stories that tell us about ourselves and the fragile planet we must share. We must tell them again; this is our imperative. Now, in the face of so much incivility, on the verge of melt-down and extinction, we are required at last to understand our own entanglement and to know that, like the world-wide bamboo rhizome, our empathy can flourish even as it faces yet another of its mysterious die-offs.  


© 2015 Carol Jeffers

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