RealTalk Dictionary: Empathy

Through the RealTalk Dictionary, Palaver members try to understand words that we often use, but that can sometimes seem to lack real meaning. Today’s installment is “Empathy”.


noun: The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

My first thought is “Grrrumph.” I open my eyes, and mysteriously, I find that I’m soaping my armpits in the shower. Then I rinse, towel, and hear about acid attacks in Iran, white-helmeted Syrian first responders that dig survivors out of rubble, and a deadly airstrike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan. I feel worried, sad, and angry for a minute, then I hop on my bike, pedal to work, and forget all about it. All in all, it’s a pretty typical morning (except that I showered…which is slightly more atypical).

I imagine that this story is not unique to just me - knowing about terrible things that happen in the world, but feeling emotionally detached from them due to distance, unfamiliarity, and relative comfort.

Unless we’ve “been there” (broken arm, bad breakup, death of loved ones), it can be incredibly difficult to truly understand what others are feeling. This can be true even with our closest friends, but it’s especially true when someone is far away and in circumstances that are drastically different from our own.

And then the crux of the problem: if we don’t empathize with others - if we are not able to engage our emotions and feel with them - then we will not act on their behalf. They remain separate from ourselves and removed from our perceived sphere of influence.

So we come to a question. How can we understand and share the feelings of others when we’ve never “been there,” when we don’t know them personally, speak their language, or necessarily share their views?

Okay, now to slightly switch gears. Meet limbic resonance, the idea that moods are contagious, that we non-verbally share our emotional states with those around us. This is a phenomenon that everyone has experienced - if you’re around someone who’s in an incredible mood, you’re drawn up with them. A terrible mood, and you’re down in the dumps as well.

That’s supergreat for the people immediately around us, but what about people who are in other countries? Is it possible to harness some sort of long-distance limbic resonance that will give us a window into their emotional experiences?

Follow my thought process for a moment:

Two elements that express and communicate emotion are sound (breathing, sighing, music) and movement (posture, body language, dance). These elements can also create emotions. For instance, not only do you laugh and jump when you feel good, but you can also feel good by laughing and jumping. 

Now imagine doing this together in a group - purposefully moving and making sound to create different emotions, and taking advantage of the our limbic resonance to share and amplify those emotions. That sounds like it could be pretty powerful. 

So we’ve decided to give it a shot. On Saturday 5/14, open (free improvisation) and Urbanity Dance are joining forces to curate a group improvisation connecting everyone in the room, through movement and sound creation, both with each other and with people on the other side of the world.

This experiment will take extreme honesty, openness, bravery, and love, because we’ll be dealing with our own stories, insecurities, and fears. Our goal is to understand by creating, to share by feeling, and we would love for you to join us.

Why? To try and see the world not as me and you, self and other, but as we. And then to take action.