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On Empathy

I was moving some pots and the worms hiding underneath it, into the flowerpot, in my garden. When I saw a lone worm left behind, I felt sorry for it, since it might never find his family members who just moved to the pot.

I actually felt empathy for a worm. And then it hit me. I felt more empathy for that worm than many Europeans, politically speaking, show towards refugees whose families are ripped apart through wars, economic, or political misery. Europeans often treat people on the move seeking shelter with an attitude of mistrust and rejection. What’s lacking is an open mind and empathy; feeling what the other person is going through.

Anna, who joined the first two Walks of Shame, told me how in her opinion empathy plays a critical role in the project – and in her life, I would imagine. To truly feel the other person’s emotions. The greek word ‘pathos’ means suffering, pain, or emotion. We humans have the ability to ‘feel along with someone else.’ In the Walk of Shame project it is all about rehumanising relationships. “But to empathise with the victims is not the only part,” she explains. “We have to open our minds to both sides. This means spending time with people on the move, but also with locals who are against migrants. Talk to the guards, the police; even if it is a challenge. I have to try.” Empathy is perhaps not an intuitive reaction towards a person who denies your interests. Still, when the goal is to see the human being in all people, it cannot only be valid for people on the move.

So, Anna talked to everyone.

“When the Walkers were singing songs with a few people on the move, outside the camp, under a tree, four security guys approached us”. They were disrespectful, rude and arrogant. “Move away, this is a military zone!” Anna got very upset: “I was mad, I had to cool off.” She found it disconcerting that they arrived with loving intentions towards the camp guards, but were up against this wall of stubborn aggression. “The face of this guy kept flashing in my mind, leaving me in shock,”’ Anna says. “I relived it again and again that day. It really disturbed me. Still, it’s good that we experience these things. Even when we encounter problems at the borders, as has happened a few times, we can experience an inkling of what people on the move are feeling. It challenged my power to empathise.”

Another time was better. Anna was speaking Serbo-Croatian, to a guard of a camp, before switching to English. She introduced herself and the group, explained they had friends in the camp and would like to spend time with them and sing some songs. They must have seemed a colourful, circus-like, flamboyant group of visitors to the guards, but Anna tried to connect with him. He asked: “What do you do?” Anna said she has been working with refugees in the Balkan since the war in the 1990s. She even lived in Belgrad; her daughter was born there. This was the first time she returned to Belgrad. She tried breaking the ice and she mentioned the 1990 bombing. “Where you here?” she asked. “Yes, we were little kids,” the man answered. “For the first few years I was a refugee from Bosnia.” “So you understand…” Anna replied emphatically. There was a human connection there, Anna could tell. But the man struggled. He felt the pressure of his post. Maybe he did not want to be reminded of his trauma. His face changed. The conversation was over. He showed them where to sign up online for permission to enter the camp and told them they could stay inside for the whole day, once they got it. He could not soften his face anymore. Perhaps Anna reminded him of his pain that would hurt too much if he allowed himself to feel. Tears would not be a good look in his uniform. He needed to remain tough.

“Everyone can feel empathy,” says Anna. “It depends on your willingness. Having had personal difficult experiences helps as it is easier to imagine another’s pain and point of view.” “It’s the same with loss,” Anna says. “I’ve lost my husband Michael and only now do I understand deeply this loss. Perhaps, without my personal tragedy, I could never have experienced the same depth of empathy.”


“When empathy is felt for people on the move,” Anna tells me, “the worst pain they all seem to experience is the pain of rejection. This pain of rejection is deep and I can relate. I am now grateful that I have experienced rejection twice. I know that pain; it is the worst. However, the worst would be a rejection from your family, for instance, when a mother rejects her child. I feel that most of the refugees I meet feel this pain of rejection. This pain adds to the trauma of war or other upheavals or disasters they flee. Some of them even have physical pain or illness.” I can imagine all migrants feel this pain; they have been ‘rejected’ not by their mothers, but by an abstract entity: the country that once was their home. Now they experience this coldness here in Europe, where they desperately seek refuge to build a new, safe life. They should be welcomed with open arms, but they are not allowed in and rejected once again. The value of one’s life is neglected and one’s worth downgraded: one’s existence is not important and regarded as a burden. The voices of Europe whisper ‘Go away!’ in one’s mind. The guards, the politicians, the people, the fences, and the stars on the European flag, all seem to wish refugees away. They should not have come.

Anna could see this pain in many refugees. During the last Walk, Z, was with the group of Walkers at a restaurant. “He stood outside, he did not come in. He did not dare, did not feel comfortable, did not feel welcomed. I can imagine he feels like a second class human, not a citizen because right now he is a citizen in nomansland”. I could feel it, his hesitation. “Come upstairs!” Anna and the group told him. But Z was afraid to cause problems. “You know that different people saw me going around with foreigners.” He was overwhelmed by the thought of what locals would think if he, a refugee, was seen with the European foreigners.”

How can you empathise with the guards?

Anna thinks it depends on her predisposition. She approached them calmly and with respect. She sees the human being in them. Later in our conversation, she lets me in on a somewhat mystical experience: the feeling she had some moments before the policeman dropped his guard recalling his childhood years as a refugee. “Walking up to them, suddenly, I saw people shining like the sun, and I felt we were all one. At one point, when I approached the policeman, I felt we could drop the armour, we were one. It was like I was floating. It gave me the love to approach them.” When you let go of your own point of view, you are soaring and looking at the situation from a point of love – seeing all possible positions for what they are – left or right, this side or that side. Labeling it as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is not relevant, it would not make sense from that point of view. Anna was not literally hovering over, obviously, nor did she disassociate from the reality of the situation, she merely saw everyone as part of a whole, with no significant difference between them and herself. From this bird’s eye view, human behaviour is seen in context; to see we are all human and our humanity is what unites us.

This feeling of unity is exactly what empathy is. Understanding what the other person is going though, letting go of my own identity, position, standpoint, and ego. To feel and acknowledge that, differences aside, we are first and foremost, human.

This makes me think about the Hindi word Namaste (नमस्ते ), which I learnt in a yoga class, means: The God in me greets the God in you. Wouldn’t it be lovely to have a universal greeting? Something like the Hebrew ‘shalom’ (שָׁלוֹם‎ ) or the Arabic ‘salaam’ (سلام ) meaning ‘peace.’ However, this universal greeting would say: the human in me greets the human in you.


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