Early Reflections

Early Reflections on our Cultural Value project by Dr Ann O’Sullivan, Postdoctoral Researcher

What is compassion? What is empathy? What is under-standing? When I was eighteen I went for an interview to become a nurse because as I stated ‘I want to help people’. Does this make me compassionate? When I watch wildlife programmes on the television if there is any indication that an animal is about to be hurt I have to turn it off immediately. Does this make me compassionate? If my sister is hurting then I am hurting, is this empathy? If my partner is sad then I am sad, is this empathy? As a student counsellor I was trained in active listening techniques in an effort to be empathic of my clients’ situation. I would listen to their stories and try to ‘stand in their shoes’ but with no prior relationship it was very difficult to say I was empathic. It seems that what comes with ease with close family and friends takes much more effort with those at a distance. I struggled with empathy in my counselling practice, it just never came naturally. With intimates, one has the relationship on which to build a bridge of empathy; with clients, one has the narrative, the story that they tell of the self. There are certain fields of counselling such as narrative therapy that suggest that empathy is not something that one has for a client but something that one co-constructs with the client. The language space between the client and the counsellor is the space in which empathy must be constructed through the telling of a particular type of narrative, usually a problem narrative.

I am interested in the Lidice project because of the focus on empathy and compassion alongside an interest in narrative. There are so many ways to look at narratives from a completely structural point of view in that they have a beginning, middle and an end, to an interest in what the narrative conveys i.e. it content. The interest in the narrative for its content is the basis of a lot of qualitative research whereby we accept at face value that the content of the narrative is representative of some external reality. I am much more interested in what narratives do or the function of a particular narrative. Why this particular narrative at this particular time in this particular context. Everyone who enters the door of a therapist’s office does so knowing that they are going to tell a particular kind of story, a problem saturated story. Everyone who enters a doctor’s office will tell a particular kind of story usually an illness narrative or a narrative put together of clues to indicate a particular illness. Go to an AA meeting and they will have their own genre of narratives to tell. But above all my interest is the way in which narratives are strategically put together to construct a particular type of self.

I begin to wonder if particular types of narrative elicit empathy or compassion more than other types. The problem saturated narrative may elicit compassion the rising above adversity narrative may elicit empathy. The dominant narratives of our own lives may make us particularly susceptible to the same narratives told to us as the audience, just as we are drawn to particular genres of film or literature.

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