• Palma Joy Strand

Empathy and Infinity

Civity relationships are relationships of respect and empathy.

Respect has always seemed straightforward to me. The root of the word – the Latin “spec” – means “to see”: To respect someone is to “see” them.

Most of us are familiar with the idea of respect for people in social positions above our own. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, in her book Respect, expands this traditional understanding by instead highlighting the respect offered by people in social positions that are more powerful and more valued to people in social positions that are less powerful and less valued.

Respect across the board is the civity baseline.

And then there is empathy.

Empathy is about trying to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, to understand their experiences and where they’re coming from. Empathy is what calls us to inclusion and kindness, to expanding the embrace of belonging.

Yet there is something about empathy that I struggle with. After all, we can never really understand another person. Isn’t it a bit presumptuous to pretend that we can? Doesn’t it minimize other people and their journeys to think we can truly “get” them?

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about the danger of reducing another person to “a single story.” A single story about a person captures them, limits them, and flattens them to a stereotype, an object, a means to an end. A single story makes it easy to categorize, dismiss, and use a person, because once we “know” their story – whichever story we happen to come across and apply – we are absolved of any responsibility to learn more about them or to understand them more fully.

Our socialization and our history allow and even encourage us to reduce others to a single story. Race, gender, ethnicity, religion, political affiliation, geographical origin, sexual orientation or identification – these are just some of the signifiers we use to justify responding to unknown others by one-dimensionalizing them, which may lead us to fear, to oppression, or to both.

The one-dimensionalizing of entire groups defined as “other” is so pervasive in our culture that “other”ing has come to mean setting a member of a social group or that entire group apart, and it carries the connotation of setting people apart in a negative way.

Philosopher Emmanual Levinas, known for his exploration of the “other,” beckons us to a different path.

When I read Levinas for the first time, I was taken aback by the fact that for him “other” has no negative valence. For Levinas, other is simply a statement about the reality of human existence and the unknowability of other human beings.

Faced with an other or others, one option is to proceed as if other human beings were cardboard cutouts to be maneuvered and manipulated – cut, shaped, positioned, and used as it suits us. Levinas calls this approach “totality,” the belief that any of us could fully grasp any other of us. This is the single-story choice.

The alternative that Levinas identifies is “infinity,” which gives us another way to understand empathy.

By definition, it’s impossible to grasp or know infinity.

Writer Jorge Luis Borges famously described drawing a map that was so detailed, it grew to the size and extent of the place being mapped. Unlike Borges’s absurd map, our knowledge of another person can never be complete. We can never plumb the depths, uncover all the experiences, or understand each and every nuance of another person.

What we can do is engage with another person in a way that acknowledges their infinity – never mapping all of it, but taking at least the first steps on a journey of discovery with an awareness that more always exists.

With mindfulness of an other’s infinity, we can approach others in a spirit of exploration, with a sense of wonder. Though we can never truly know or understand, we can listen, glimpse, appreciate, and love.

Approaching another person with an awareness of their infinity – this is an empathy that resonates with me. This empathy invites us to imagine what it is like to walk in another person’s shoes, while recognizing that we can never truly know the path they have walked. This empathy calls us to recognize places on someone else’s map that are familiar, while recognizing that our maps will never align entirely – or capture all the nuances of our lives. This empathy reminds us that no one – ever – is a single story.

This kind of empathy embraces others without squeezing them too tightly, without trying to control.

An empathy based on infinity calls us to inclusion and kindness not because we “know” or “understand” others, but precisely because we do not know and can never fully understand.

With an awareness of our own infinity, we can bear witness to infinity in others.

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