The Empathy Project Seeks to Build Bridges, Promote Understanding

What is The Empathy Project?

The Empathy Project is an evolving, multi-faceted art project in which people are the medium. It is a study of the shared experience of what it means to be human. Currently, there are two facets to the project: 1.) The box which consists of a wooden box 38 x 18 x 12 inches tall, long, and wide, respectively. On it are laser cut the instructions, “Share something that makes you feel vulnerable. It will be displayed but your identity will remain anonymous unless you choose otherwise.”[*] When/where/how will they be displayed, you ask? I do not know. I did not expect the volume of responses I’ve received and have had to reconfigure my plans for the exhibition. 2.) Strangers which is heavily inspired by the Touching Strangers project started by Richard Renaldi. However, I’ve taken my own spin on it.[†]

But, what is The Empathy Project?

The Empathy Project is the culmination of a series of thoughts that initi- and propagated my depression over approximately 8 years. Once I managed to distance myself from my depression, these thoughts became inspiration to change aspects of the world that robbed me of everything necessary for human life.

One idea behind The Empathy Project is that in the day-to-day picayune routine, it is easy – as in readily done as well as more convenient – to forget that what imbues life with meaning is connection; genuine, authentic interaction with others. This is forgotten because society both explicitly discourages such interactions and simply ignores the importance of connection. After all, capitalism does not run on the idea of people making themselves vulnerable to one another. Furthermore, much of our lives are lived on an unconscious level. To illustrate these points, take for example Thompson Library itself: Within such open architecture and inviting context for curiosity – albeit a library and people are studying – it is a given that no strangers will interact with one another unless someone has more prurient intentions. These barriers that we erect are not done so malignantly, but unconsciously; it is what has been done, it is what is expected to be done, so it is what I will continue to do. During the periods that the box has been installed on The Oval, even in such open, free space, this holds true as well (the one additional exception being petting dogs). No one questions it; it is done unconsciously, meaning without thought. However, through another aspect of The Empathy Project, I introduced two gentlemen – David and Kevin. An hour later, Kevin walked by as I was sitting on a bench on the other side of The Oval and thanked me because they are now friends. So, The Empathy Project foments a dialogue as to whether these barriers are beneficial or not and in what contexts?

The other idea behind The Empathy Project is that I believe one of the distinguishing characteristics of Homo sapiens is that we alone can understand how risky – and mildly idiotic – it is to love. Whether it be love of a parent, child, sibling, significant other, friend, or stranger, by making yourself that vulnerable, you are potentially opening yourself up to severe suffering. Despite knowing this, though, we continue to love in a myriad of ways every day. That is a beautiful thing. Anne Frank wrote in her diary, “In spite of everything, I still believe people are really good at heart.” I think everyone would agree with me when I say that these are not the words of a coward. Perhaps strength, then, is best measured by your capacity to love. Related to this, I also believe there is a consummate form of love rooted in empathy – the ability to see the world as it exists outside of your head and to turn off the unconscious, default state of solipsism. Yet, empathy is a skill that when not utilized, is lost. We must practice it because our society is becoming inviable: The political climate, tension across socioeconomic, racial, sexual, religious, ethnic barriers, in conjunction with the raising rate of suicide and mental illness. At this point, it is not exaggeration to say that our culture is killing us. In many ways, literally, and in many more ways, figuratively. It almost killed me. But I persevered and now want to change the world. You may say that is naive, but, as David Foster Wallace said in his behemoth Infinite Jest, “[It is a] queerly persistent U.S. myth that cynicism and naiveté are mutually exclusive.” To believe in such a myth is reductio ad absurdum because if such ideas are those of children, why is it then, that human life, too, is queerly persistent?

[*] If you are curious as to the role of vulnerability, that will be expounded upon in future posts. For now, this will suffice: We all have these little, dark nuggets of ourselves that we keep hidden because we are ashamed of them. Every night, then, you ask yourself: Have I allowed myself to be seen? What if they knew the real me? Would they still like me? Obfuscating these parts of us inhibits connection, but the thing is, we all have them. So, no one must be ashamed, it’s simply a matter of non-judgement and, well, empathy.

[†] This cryptic sentence will also be expounded upon in future posts. However, the exegesis is rather abstract, so I’ll save it for later.

About the Author:  My name is Edwin. In many ways, I’m an average guy: I leave Venn diagrams on most chairs I sit on which depict the finite collection of sudoriparous glands on my left and right ass cheeks and suffer from non-life-threatening heart palpitations speaking with most women. I’m a recent alumni having majored in molecular genetics and Spanish. When not formulating elegant manners of saying I perspire heavily or proselytizing about empathy, I’m probably either reading or rock-climbing. If you want to talk, shoot me an email at edwinricethe4th@gmail.com.

Follow The Empathy Project on Twitter @cultivateempathy

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