25 November 2014

Empathy as the Cradle of Civilisation

Written by Published in Lifestyle

In his 5th account – Sustainability and Psychiatry – Sublime magazine desert-dweller, Mark Charlton, finds out that a selfless and caring gesture can make a world of difference

“When a fire starts to burn, right, and it starts to spread…” DISCLOSURE

This week I committed to far too many things and, naturally, the less my day went to plan, the more frustrated I became. How could I choose when every project was so tantalising? I was disappointed that I couldn’t complete things well and all my initial enthusiasm and excitement were soon replaced with indecision, disappointment and anger, even shame as I struggled to present the best version of myself as a co-ordinator here. My reaction was to find some time alone pronto. But then, something beautiful happened – a volunteer stopped to give me a big hug. It was a gesture that, being under presure, I found very touching. She saw that I wasn’t managing in that moment, she didn’t judge me for all the inadequacies that were swamping my mind; I was just shown some much-needed empathy and all the stress I had felt was firmly put into perspective.

Enjoying your own company or that of a great book, the assumption that you’re pretty sorted, independent and able to deal with anything life throws at us is easy to make – alone, we can be in control of how we wish to see the world or mould it into how we want it to look and feel. But the true test comes when this is challenged in 'real world time'. At those times, coping strategies can look depleted and things can get stressful.

Living and working at Sunseed presents an opportunity to take that test; at the moment, a giant family of 18 currently race about with different values, beliefs and interests. We all live, eat, work and party together so enjoying and maintaining working relations is fundamental to all our sanity. Ground breaking psychiatric research published in the mid-1970s proposed that a roughly equal mixture of genes, psychology and socialisation made up our well-being. However until recently, abnormal functioning of the brain was still assumed amongst neuroscientists with little consideration given to other factors. Forty years later, results of studies undeniably show that genetics and chemical imbalances are much less important to our overall happiness – in fact, our genes evolve as we create new habits and routines. We are ultimately the results of our circumstances, our support network, how we live and choose to respond to life events.

So, apart from learning how to make soap, mastering sourdough bread and harvesting lots of almonds and olives this season, my greatest learning experience has been improving my resilience in this microclimate of life – my patience, flexibility and ability to listen to others’ needs are always being improved. I’m starting to understand the process of learning, the circumstances in which I thrive (note to self:  when I’m calm!) and when it’s OK to ask for help. The past 6 months have been an experience to learn how to manage constantly changing circumstances, expectations and friendships as well as teaching and managing volunteers.

A sustainable working environment equals dynamic, more human work ethic, a kinder outlook and softening expectation of others. My responses require action from the most intelligent part of myself that can adapt and empathise with others and I can only connect with that kind of intelligence by taking good care of myself.


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RSA Shorts: Dr Brené Brown, "The Power of Empathy" from Gobblynne on Vimeo.