Loving Communities 4: Empathy

Roy Herndon Smith

the way

The nameless is the beginning of heaven and Earth.
The named is the mother of the ten thousand things.
—Lao Tzu

bereft, one wanders
off the path, one arrives here
where the ocean breathes

one breathes in, one breathes
out, one is, the nameless breath
of the lost mother

of heaven and earth
who breathes out, shoves out, shouts out
the ten thousand things

she swells and falls there
she does not swell and fall there
she is and she is not

the ocean crashing
now there, now over one’s head
now all that is here

bang it up, mama
now, bear it, birth it, hold it
sing it out, name it

’til all fall breathless
nameless, lost in each other
and drowning in names

Trust assumes empathy, opening to and feeling with the trustworthy other.

According to the psychologist Daniel Stern, newborn babies awake in empathic atmospheres—warmth, joy, coolness, sadness, fear, hardness, smoothness, serenity. I call these awakening atmospheres “empathic” because the newborn feels with everyone and everything else. “Empathy” names this “feeling with” or primal relational awareness

Newborn reality consists of changing empathic worlds newborns and mothers or primary caregivers and all else create by how they respond to each other. Newborns and mothers or primary caregivers compose, out of the totality of disparate notes and silences, the music of newborn reality.

This music, because it composes the whole of reality, continues in the absences of the mother or primary caregiver. The themes the rhythms and melodies of presence and absence, sound and silence, between newborns and mothers or primary caregivers weave the notes that constitute reality as a whole into symphonies of newborn reality as a whole.

As empathic music, newborn reality is inherently, though implicitly, social. I write “inherently” to indicate that “social” does not apply to a part of reality, reality as a whole is social; it, and all it’s constituents, are communal co-constructions. Any instance of reality is, implicitly in newborn reality, a meeting of all with all that finds and creates forms (or schemas, or senses). These forms are, first of all, as Stern observes, elements of social dramas, in that patterns of interactions between newborns and mothers or primary caregivers compose them. For instance, a newborn and the morning light coming in the window together construct a preverbal form of what the child will later call “sunlight.” The window, a material social construction, literally frames this sense of sunlight; but, more decisively, the light carries with in, as an inherent element, the visceral memory and expectation of the newborn’s mother’s embrace. This sense of the mother’s presence informs the perception of “sunlight,” even when the mother is absent; the mother-nurturing-newborn social drama inheres in the perceptual form, sunlight; empathy, or social feeling with, informs the sense of sunlight, which, in turn, pervades the whole of reality with this empathic warmth.

This pervasive sense of sunlight is social and empathic in an additional way. The mother’s mother’s or primary caregiver’s and their ancestors’ and her and their communities’ and her and their historical periods’ senses of sunlight are all present in the mother’s actions and expressions as she interacts with her child in the sunlight; the newborn feels with, in, and through the mother all these social and historical senses of sunlight

This preverbal empathic sense of sunlight grounds, usually implicitly, every subsequent moment in which sunlight is present or remembered or imagined. As the newborn grows into a child and then an adult, each new meeting with sunlight and with remembered, imagined, and represented sunlight in new social and natural empathically known contexts adds to, without replacing or erasing, the original preverbal empathic sense of the sunlit mother-world. Even when defined and experienced as “sunlight,” an “object” explicitly abstracted out of and defined as existing apart from empathically known reality (which has been banished to the parenthetical margins of consciousness), this form, word, or representation actually only exists in moments in which it is implicitly embedded in and co-creative with all else in empathically known global realities.

What is true for sunlight or “sunlight” is true for all else—every particular entity, quality, sense, form, word, person, and world. Like trust, with which it is almost synonymous, empathy is ontogenetically and ontologically primal, both the individual historical and the ongoing always present ground of reality as loving communities or co-creative meetings between knowing and known. Reality as a whole and we and all the participants in reality as a whole are continually empathically forming and formed.