My early life lacked any training in empathy. The family I grew up in didn’t talk about feelings — their own or anyone else’s. I don’t remember having any sense of my brothers and sisters as people. (Sometimes I wonder if we all had a touch of Asperger’s.) My life was focused on school and hobbies. I didn’t have many friends, and found friendship difficult. In college, roommates who were assigned to me complained I was impossible to live with, I was so distant. But it was in college that I discovered the world of psychology, from a required introductory course surveying several subjects. The idea that you could study how people felt was a revelation to me. I realized I was deficient in social skills, and began trying to learn them. But the two experiences that were most helpful to me in developing empathy came much later.
After several years of open marriage, and many relationships which started with high hopes but quickly fizzled or crashed, I had a love affair that was wonderful. The difference was, that this man listened. He was interested in me, he was interested in understanding me, he really wanted to know me. The attention he gave me was undiluted by the preoccupations always distracting most people. And what he said in response always showed his appreciation of my experience. He challenged my crazy places — but in the most loving, playful — even fun — ways. I could talk to him about anything; I poured my heart out.
Alan had learned these skills in a program called Re-evaluation Counseling. Or, informally, co-counseling, because it was in many ways a cooperative practice, where two people take turns being counselor and client. Other friends had taken RC courses, and talked about it enthusiastically, often recommending I do it. But Alan never talked about it or pushed it. It was just who he was. It made him happy.
I went and found myself a class. For the next ten years I studied and practiced their techniques of active listening and compassionate support for people’s natural processes of psychological healing. I can’t speak highly enough of the value of what I learned.
For example it enabled me to make friends with my daughter Petra on the occasion of her first love. As she became a teenager, our relationship had become adversarial. Now her boyfriend disappointed her, and her heart was breaking. Against all my previous patterns, I bit my lip and refrained from offering advice. I told her I knew she was hurting awfully, she was a beautiful person, she deserved better, I could see this was terrible for her. I mirrored her in the most positive way I could, without forcing optimism on her. I just let her be, and let her know I cared by simply sitting with her, as she lay on her bed and sobbed.
Listening to her wrenched my heart. But I knew crying was the natural means for her wounded heart to discharge her grief. I didn’t suggest any course of action to her. I didn’t analyze her behavior. I didn’t talk about my own experience. I didn’t criticize the boy, or encourage her to hate him; I just said it was too bad he couldn’t manage to do better. I said I was sad to see how hard this was for her; I appreciated how wonderful it was to discover love, how beautiful love should be, how heartbreaking to have first love fail.
As a result of expressing only empathy, I received the priceless gift of my daughter’s confidence. By continuing to talk to me, and coming to me for support, she told me clearly without so many words, that I was helpful. A total contrast to how things had been going between us before I decided to put my co-counseling into practice.
The dark side of my experience with RC came when I volunteered to be client in a demonstration session with one of the big names of the program. Since “distress patterns” (conditioned neural networks of destructive mental habits) defend themselves ingeniously, RC used a lot of creativity to surprise clients into discharging them. New techniques were pioneered often, and promoted aggressively in the highly-organized, top-down authority structure.
Recently people had reported a lot of success in relieving what seemed to be completely physical problems by dealing with old emotional distress. So I was trying it on my chronic bad health. But I did think there was also a physical problem that my doctors hadn’t found. When I said this, the Big Man exerted his authority, insisting that I abandon that thought.
Cowed, I obeyed. After all, I was up there on that stage in order to try his plan, right? I proceeded, opening my feelings to view. I did produce some discharge… But I wasn’t all there. I didn’t even realize it ’til much later when I left the room. Then I found myself shaking — a discharge of fear — and feeling nauseous. I wanted to run somewhere and hide.
Days later I was able to feel angry. Some experienced women co-counselors encouraged me to counsel using whatever worked for me, instead of the new method being preached by the authority structure. But I felt betrayed — raped even — and I drifted away from co-counseling. Years later, another group calling itself CoCounseling International (CCI) split off from RC, taking a stand on egalitarian relationship as fundamental. Sounds good — but I haven’t checked them out.
My reaction was extreme, because this is a central issue for me — but I don’t blame myself for overreacting. Inappropriate authority is manipulation through violence. I’m immensely grateful to the good RC teachers I had, and thankful for the empathy I learned with their help. But I can only recommend co-counseling with a grave caveat.
Songs of Compassion
The other major empathy teacher in my life has been singing and listening to songs of a certain kind.
Music alone has profound effects on the body/mind. Physiologically, it influences skin conductance, heart rate, breathing frequency, and temperature sensation. It synchronizes the body rhythms of a group of people. Its effects include calming, stimulating, inspiring, creating “flow” states, stimulating brain development, and improving learning (of any subject). It makes you dance, lifts your spirits, and gathers people in community.
Then add lyrics. The song can be about caring, empathy, compassion… like “We Are the World,” by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie. Or it can be about peace in the world, like Bob Marley’s “One Love.” It can express compassion for specific situations, like Fred Small’s “Everything Possible.” It can evoke our compassion for someone’s struggle, like James Taylor’s “Millworker.” The combination of the power of music with these heartfelt pleas and heart-wringing stories … delivers a powerful boost to our feelings for others.
Studies on this effect call these songs “pro-social,” and provide plenty of statistical evidence. For example a study in France (where tips are not standard because a service charge is added to every bill) compared prosocial songs as restaurant background music, to other kinds. More diners gave tips, and tipped higher, with the pro-social lyrics. Other research included an “accident” where the person conducting the test dropped a container of pencils. Subjects in the group who were played prosocial music during the test, were spontaneously more helpful in picking them up.
Aside from the social-science jargon, what do you call this kind of music? A lot of it falls into “folk music.” (But not all. And that category also includes historical songs that don’t speak to me of empathy.) In a 2008 interview, Peter Yarrow says “It’s about asserting the decency in human beings and the best way to do that is through the arts because logic won’t prevail. That is what Peter, Paul and Mary have done for almost 50 years. We’ve had a huge audience some of whom did not agree with our politics but were touched with the human essence of our songs. I believe folk music has had a positive effect on the decency, humanity and empathy of society.” Yarrow is talking specifically about “Puff the Magic Dragon” but clearly applies what he says about that, to all of Peter Paul and Mary’s music.
Politics is part of it — that kind of politics Penobscot Chief Barry Dana talks about when he says “politics is the highest form of spirituality.” The politics of compassion. Some of this music I guess you could call “protest songs.” In a 2010 Toronto Star article, columnist Greg Quill quotes singer-songwriter Jon Brooks talking about his mixed reaction to that genre: it wasn’t really part of his musical life when he started. In fact, “folk and protest music of the 1960s ‘seemed laughable, a cliché, something in the back of the record store to be avoided’.” But now he feels differently: “The purpose of songwriting, for me, … is to unite people through stories, through empathy.”
However the most powerful songs, I think, protest only in the most subtle ways: not with a stick but a carrot. I keep looking for a category more appropriate. The media do not seem to have one.
In the 1980s, exploring the alternative culture, Jesse and I found a spiritual community where music was important. He joined the band. I didn’t have the talent to perform with them, but I could roadie. So I traveled with them, and at every concert danced and sang along with everyone else in the audience. Ah, yes — add the participation of your own movement, your own voice: the song’s power soars. That experience changed me permanently. I never thought about it at the time, it was just what was happening. But now I realize it taught me the joy available to an open heart.
 Re-evauation Counseling. Participants usually shortened the name to “RC.” This organization later split in two; the new group, taking a stand on egalitarian relationship as fundamental, became Co-Counseling International.
 Goldsmith (March 6, 2008). Yarrow is talking specifically about “Puff the Magic Dragon” but clearly applies what he says about that, to all of Peter Paul and Mary’s music.
 Dana, (Unity, Maine: Maine Organic Farmers and Gardenerss, September 21, 2001).
 Quill, (Toronto Star, June 25, 2010).