Compassion, Empathy and Kindness: In Theatre and Beyond

Compassion and empathy are essential in theatre--from its inception at the written word to the performers, directors and production team. I love that it can be a tool used to dig into our humanity to pull out the recognition of ourselves in someone else--someone whom perhaps we never saw a connection to before. I'm not the only one who is attracted to the workings of a villain, of a hero with a fatal flaw, the person who does exactly what they should not do, but yet, we discover there is humanity beneath it all. Can this villain be redeemed? Can this villain show remorse? Could we say we would act differently if we were in that situation? If we were not only in that situation, but if we were that person? A writer doesn't usually write an evil villain--a writer writes someone who truly believes their actions are correct. Or who has immense guilt if they know their actions go against their morals. Watching these flawed characters whom we find droplets to relate to, whom we try to understand, whom we listen to with curiosity and an open mind--this is how we gain sympathy.  This is how we can watch a 90-minute show following a murderer or a cheating spouse or a conflicted politician and feel for them.

If we could bring this practice to every day life...

NPR's The Ted Radio Hour aired an episode called Just A Little Nicer, that struck a convicting chord in me one evening as I was driving on a dark snowy highway. I was raised with sentiments such as "treat others how you would like to be treated," and "leave judging for no one but God." When I was a teenager, I was introduced to dialectical arguments in essay writing. You can't argue your side until you first argue (then address) your opposing side. In college, philosophy, psychology and political science classes further encouraged engaging in "the other," listening, keeping an open mind to understand all sides. Understanding is power, but it is also the key to change. And we have to be open to not only changing "the other," but changing ourselves.  This leads us not only to create Art in a more complete way, but also to engage in the world around us in a more complete way.

However, even if we are raised with these adages and virtues, we still need reminders as we walk through every day life.  As we view online posts that raise our blood pressure because we cannot understand how someone could possibly think this way. As we hold political discussions that baffle us and make us want to bang our heads against a wall. As we ignore homeless people on the street, dismiss a request for help, as we choose not to do more when we know that we could.  We need reminders. We need compassion and kindness.

This particular Ted Radio Hour gave me that. If you have time to listen, I encourage you to check it out. If you don't, here are a few things I gleaned from the episode:

1) Emotional Correctness is essential to make persuasion of any kind, and should not be trumped by political correctness. Sally Kohn, progressive political commentator spoke, “Liberals on my side, we can be self-righteous, we can be condescending, we can be dismissive of anyone who doesn't agree with us. In other words, we can be politically right, but emotionally wrong. And incidentally, that means that people don't like us. Now here's the kicker. Conservatives are really nice, not all of them, and not the ones that send me hate mail. But you would be surprised." She uses Sean Hannity as an example.  "I think Sean Hannity is 99% politically wrong but his emotional correctness is strikingly impressive and that's why people listen to him. Because you can't get anyone to agree with you if they don't want to listen to you first.” If you dig down deep enough, you usually can find a point of common ground and understanding. You “need emotional correctness to start the conversations that lead to change.”

2) We must be mindful of others, not absorbed in ourselves. We must be attentive and see people face-to-face so that we can notice where/how to be compassionate and be predisposed to help. Be wary of having the majority of your discourse on social media. Social media (especially the group mentality which often is built in) does not allow the face-to-face communication which is the "channel for the social brain." Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence spoke that we have an "unprecedented experiment with an entire generation" due to the large amount of social interaction spent on screen.

3) Compassion can be practiced. It is built in, from an evolutionary standpoint ("Kin Selection," as Robert Wright explains), but we have surpassed simply showing compassion for those carrying our genes. And we can get better at it.  Krista Tippet, host of NPR's "On Being," stresses to be open to listening, being present, being curious. Don't surround yourselves always with like-minded people. Listening is “not necessarily about agreeing with somebody else or liking them. It is about making a choice to honor their humanity."

What better communication, understanding, productivity and change we all could have if we engaged in a little more compassion.