Strolling among the dunes and driftwood, and the mock heather and yarrow of Moonstone Beach on California’s Central Coast, you are likely to come across a humble wooden bench made remarkable by what it declares, by the empathy it stirs, and by the stories it invites us to share. Rough and weatherworn, the bench is evocative of the salt air and wild daisies, the restless tides reshaping the continent’s rocky edge, and the wide sunset views it is meant to afford. But it has become legendary and invokes much more than a simple seascape. From its niche in the coastal ecosystem, this bench triumphs in returning us to the cultural sphere, to the human hands that created and mounted a small plaque to the backrest, and to the soul forever inhabiting the carved letters proclaiming: “I shall always love a purple iris.” Like the bench itself, the thought is at once simple and elegant, forthright and mysterious—a paradox, to be sure, but also a metaphor for that innate capacity enabling us to wonder, to imagine, and thus, to empathize.”

–From The Question of Empathy: Searching for the Essence of Humanity by Carol Jeffers

Through her writing, Carol Jeffers blends narrative nonfiction and fiction to more fully explore the human condition. She is the author of works both in short- and long-form. Her forthcoming book, The Question of Empathy, was named a semi-finalist in the 2017 Pirates’ Alley William Faulkner Writing Competition (Walter Isaacson, judge). A Professor Emeritus of Art Education, her interest in empathic listening began in the classroom years ago when she and her university students explored works of art that served as personal metaphors. These experiences and related interactions with art, self, and others were the subjects of Carol’s academic writing published in refereed journals, edited volumes and a single-author book (Spheres of Possibility: Linking Service-Learning and the Visual Arts) during her university career.

Book Description:

What if we all had a power to connect with others, to understand what they are feeling, what they are thinking? What if such a power was flighty, unreliable, open to true understanding or total confusion? Would that make us better human beings? In The Question of Empathy, Carol Jeffers explores a power that exists today within each of us and its ability to connect and to delude.

Have you ever wondered about empathy, what it is and why it matters? What makes us human and capable of incredible caring, total savagery, or worse, complete indifference toward each other? Are you looking for ways to better understand yourself, the people around you and across the world? The Question of Empathy entreats you to explore this hard-wired capacity, not through rose colored glasses, but with an honest look at human nature. Philosophy and psychology, neuroscience and art lead the way along a journey of discovery into what makes us who we are and how we connect to others. It isn’t always easy, but then neither is real life. The Question of Empathy offers a roadmap.

Interview:

Welcome Carol! What inspired you to write a book which explores the human condition?

Carol: Ah, the “why human nature, why empathy?” question. Hello, and thank you for that most grounding question.

I think I have always wondered about such things: Who are we? Where did we come from from? How did we get here (how is this time, this place even possible?), and where are we going? Even as a child, I wondered; an eight-year old philosopher studying my cat, closely observing everything about her and wondering what made her a cat? And what made me a human being? I loved her soft fur, hearing her purr, yet she seemed so mysterious despite my best efforts to capture her essence in my little drawings. I drew and drew and drew, spent hours on my bedroom floor with my pastels, the colors I could blend with my fingers, make her fur look as soft as it felt. If I could just capture the details, make her look real, then maybe I would understand the mystery; maybe find the answers to my vexing, if philosophic questions.

I grew up to teach visual art, first at the high school level (where the questions became “what makes crazy, high-spirited adolescents who they are? Where did they come from, where are they going, or… how on Earth are they going to get there?” I taught at the university level for most of my career and became a co-learner, co-explorer with my students as we took on the huge question of what it means to be human.

The arts—visual, performing, literary—can be profound. They tap into human experience, heighten it, distill it and offer themselves as powerful tools, magnanimous vehicles that carry us into the depths of human nature. The arts are a metaphor for the human condition. They are as practical as they are beautiful, bridges connecting our perceptions of the lived world with our conceptions of it. Not to mention they bridge between how we experience life and how we imagine it. Metaphors are vivid, memorable, help us make sense of “what is” and “what could be,” or even “what ought to be.” Perception/conception, “is/ought” are made clear in an artful, metaphoric description of how we still imagine, still hope, still search for potential, possibility, still believe in empathy. They reveal us to us. They remind us we can be both heroes and villains, saints and sinners, victims and abusers, collaborators and competitors. The arts throw open the windows, give us the oxygen we need to understand our complex and contradictory nature. They whisper, “Breathe in, breathe it all in. Breathe again and again, and you will inhale the empathy each of you needs to understand your Self in relation to Others.”

Are you a detail freak when it comes to writing your books?

Carol: “Detail freak?” Sure. Details are important to me. As silly as it sounds, I see each one as a little shiny nugget. My task, then, is to pick each one up, study it to see if it sparkles enough to tell a little story, and figure out where each will be placed in contributing to the larger story I am writing.

In undertaking the nugget-rich research for The Question of Empathy, I was very fortunate that from the outset, I always knew the structure of the book and, therefore how to organize the details. It was clear to me that there would need to be a chapter about the powerful role of images in shaping empathy’s story. I also needed a chapter on the difficulty of defining empathy, as evidenced by a collection of diverse, wide-ranging characterizations, a deep dive into the etymological roots of words like “compassion,” “understanding,” and “sympathy” associated with empathy. (Quick aside: what is the difference between empathy and sympathy? How is it that the English word “empathy” was not coined until 1907 or so?) A third chapter would be devoted to the importance of the body in understanding how and why empathy works. Another would explore the role of story-telling, why we invent stories to tell and how, in sharing them, we build community, we build empathic connections.

I knew there must also be a chapter exploring the threats to empathy. If we are “hard-wired” and “evolutionarily designed” for empathy, as the scientists tell us, then why aren’t we more empathic? Finally, I knew there must be a chapter that offered a way forward, a new way between our competitive and collaborative sides. There must be new words, new activities and enterprises to address the contradictions of human nature, negotiate the distance between self and other and promote healthy, empathic communities.

How hard for you was it to sit down and start writing your book? Did yo have all these ideas swirling around in your head or did it take some time before you were actually ready to sit down and begin?

Carol: I was called to write The Question of Empathy. I felt compelled to take a stab at capturing in words the empathic bonds I saw forming in my classes. The caring communities I found especially in my elementary art methods class. Prospective elementary teachers without much background in art were required to take the course, wonderfully generous and warm hearted students to be sure. They took on the assignment of finding a work of art at the one of L.A.’s art museums that would tell their story, serve as a personal metaphor. “Listen for the piece that calls you,” I told them. “Pay attention to it, even if it is only a whisper at first,” I would say. “Then figure out why this piece is choosing you, why it must become your metaphor.” Though they felt unsure, gingerly stepping into museums they had never visited before, these students were also dutiful and were always amazed to hear the whispers. Art calls out, art must be heard, not just seen.

Students shared their metaphors in class, each presenter telling a story that the art had told them, always revelatory, often cathartic, often shining a light into the darker corners of their lives. A half dozen or so of these profound stories and the art that prompted them are recounted in the book.

Here’s the thing, though. I undertook this project as the academic researcher and writer I was. I looked into “empathic listening,” and then learned about the neuroscientists’ discovery of “mirror neurons,” which they dubbed the “neurological basis of empathy.”

Empathy became the focus of my research and the subject of the first very-academic drafts. At the same time, I was becoming more and more interested in writing “creative non-fiction,” or at least learning more about it, trying it out because I knew that dry, boring, jargon-filled academic writing would never do justice to the the rich authenticity of the empathic interactions I was seeing in my classroom. Fortunately for me as a creative writer yearning to breathe free, I was nearing retirement. I was happy to work full time on the empathy project, re-work old drafts, discover more of the richness and discover more about empathy. More about metaphor and how to draw upon art, science, philosophy and psychology to tell a more revealing and engaging story about empathy even as its fleeting, elusive nature can leave us exasperated.

Writers are often associated with loner tendencies. Is there any truth to that?

Carol: A ”loner,” you ask? It might look like I am alone in my purple room with just my cup of green tea, a half stick of sugarless spearmint gum and my Alexa playing classical music. I can understand that, there I am in my sweat pants, pecking away on the keyboard for hours.

But I never feel alone. I always have the reader in mind, always keep the reader with me. Sometimes, it is the reader who guides my hand, pulls me along, lets me know what needs to fly up on the screen. Other times, we are together, hand in hand, marching along, picking up the nuggets, deciding which ones are shiny-bright enough to tell the story.

And at the risk of sounding like I’m a bit of a crazy lady, I’ll tell you that Empathy, capital “E,” never left me alone for one minute during this project. Somewhere in the move from academic writing to creative non-fiction, Empathy became a character. I still remember the day: Empathy seemed to stand up, come right off the screen and proclaim itself as the main character. Empathy wanted to be shown as a nomadic figure wandering among us in a faded purple robe and sandals.

It wasn’t long before Empathy demanded to talk. I can remember telling my husband, “I guess I’m going to have to learn to write dialogue.” It felt as strange and amazing to me as I’m sure it sounded to him. Empathy almost took over, writing the book for me. Soon enough, Empathy was accompanied by companions known as Certainty and Uncertainty who also had plenty to say.

What The Question of Empathy does, I can say now, is to literalize the metaphor. Make it come to life. Maybe Empathy knew all along what the reader wanted, knew best how to tell the story for the reader sitting beside me day after day.

Just as Empathy said again and again, community and connection are important and I agree. I do get out of my purple room. I need to belong to communities real and virtual. I knit with a group; picture up to fifteen of us, typically eight or so knitting together around a table, talking, sharing movie and book reviews, recounting details of trips and plans for future travels, all tied together by our call to knit for social justice. Items needed for families in transitional housing, hats, scarves, baby blankets and sweaters.

I also enjoy posting a weekly piece on Facebook, keeping up with friends via email and always, spending time with my daughters and grandkids. There, not such a crazy lady after all.

I am so excited about your book, The Question of Empathy: Searching for the Essence of Humanity. It’s all about connecting with one another which is probably the best thing we could do in this confusing world. How will your book help me connect better with my fellow man?

Carol: My hope is that you will come away with a better understanding of how difficult empathy, or Empathy is to pin down, and that it will take some conscious effort and commitment to stay with it, keep up with its flitting, fleeting nature. Your commitment and dedication will lead you to understand how ubiquitous and powerful images are, how to read provocative images, decode the emotions encoded in their content, how they can be used to promote and threaten empathy both. Your dedication to this voyage of discovery, your willingness to go on a human odyssey will require a deep dive into human nature, into uncertainty and exasperation. You will appreciate the importance of your own body, understand its importance in birthing emotion, and emotion’s importance in formulating thought.

You will become acquainted with your own mirror neurons that allow your body, your emotions to resonate along with the bodies of others and to feel what they feel. Perhaps most important, you will understand your Self in relation to Others, how to nurture your own social-emotional well-being. How to strike balances and re-balance situations tipping too far off of a healthy center.

In a world that for a couple of centuries now has over-emphasized the value and importance of competition over cooperation, this may not be easy. But at the very least, you will be more aware of the toxic, pernicious relationship between capitalism’s greed and over-reliance on competition and the “cultural narcissism” it has been breeding. Those of us who reject narcissistic impulses must stand together, find our reward and fulfillment in self-sacrifice, not in self-preservation or worse, self-aggrandisement. We must try out the new words, new approaches, new ways that can put us on the path leading to the place between competition and cooperation, between self and other, between the material and the spiritual, the individual and the communal.

What’s next for you?

Carol: What’s next? I feel like “next” is already here. I have a book-length manuscript, Smoke of a Great Fire, under review right now. Fingers crossed that a publisher might take a chance on what is a “speculative” memoir written in third person that relies on invention and imagination to reveal a deep truth in my life.

I also have just published a personal essay about the seawall my grandfather and I “shared” in Brittany to reflect on the meaning of his service in World War I (read it here: https://www.connotationpress.com/creative-nonfiction/3287-carol-jeffers-creative-nonfiction).

Two more personal essays will be published shortly. Two others are out for review. Again, fingers crossed.

There is a new project that is just starting to crystalize now. I look forward to figuring out what it wants to be and how best to tell the story of the century-old Victorian farmhouse we once restored and raised our girls in. How is our story braided with the first family’s, the people who built the house and lived in it until about 1930?

 

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