Philosopher and School of Life faculty member Roman Krznaric describes how childhood trauma helped him write his new book, and why he has founded the world’s first online Empathy Library.
I don’t think it’s ever a good idea to write a book about the art of living if you think you’ve got all the answers. It’s almost certain to be too preachy and too self-confident. My new book, Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution (published by Rider Books), is about how empathy – the ability to step imaginatively into the shoes of other people and look at the world from their perspective – can transform our everyday lives and the society we live. And I can safely say that it is still something I struggle with in my daily life.
In fact, one of the main reasons I wrote the book was because of my own empathy deficit – although I didn’t realise this until I was deep into the writing process. I actually began my research for the book over a decade ago. I used to be an academic teaching sociology and politics, but abandoned it all to explore the power of empathy – a subject that took me into totally new disciplinary realms, from neuroscience and behavioural psychology to anthropology and film.
But it was only after researching empathy for about five years that I finally understood why it mattered so much to me. One day I was thinking about how I was affected by my mother’s death, when I was ten. Not only did I lose most of my memories from before that age – as often occurs in cases of childhood trauma – but I also became very emotionally withdrawn. I found it difficult to relate to other people’s sorrows, or equally to feel their joys. I rarely cried. And as I sat contemplating this, I suddenly had an epiphany. My interest in writing about empathy really stemmed from an unconscious desire to recover the empathic self that I had lost as a child.
Writing the book, though, served to hone my empathy skills. It prompted me to make a greater effort to practise empathic listening with my partner and five-year-old twins. This involves really listening hard to discover their feelings and needs, especially when family tensions are rising – and making sure not to interrupt them. It sounds almost too simple, but it’s amazing how doing so can calm a situation that could easily end up in an argument or tears. As any agony aunt will tell you, empathic listening is one of the keys to a healthy relationship.
There was another unexpected effect of writing the book. Part of my research involved trying to find the most powerful and inspiring books and films about empathy – the kind that really catapult your imagination into lives that are different from your own. My internet searches for quality resources sometimes yielded results but also proved frustratingly random. So I dreamed up and founded the world’s first online Empathy Library to solve the problem.
The Empathy Library is a website that I have launched alongside the book, where you can go to find fantastic novels, non-fiction books, feature films, documentaries and video shorts all about stepping into other people’s shoes. How does it work? Although it doesn’t contain items to borrow or view, there are reviews and ratings of over 100 books such as Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, together with movies like Gandhi and Avatar. The library collection also includes dozens of books and films for children and teens. Visitors can search the collection and view Top Ten Charts, and join up to add their own favorite items and comment on others.
It’s a growing and vibrant global community. Thousands of people have already come through the virtual doors of the library since its launch and have been adding to the collection every day. It has caught the attention of librarians in Australia, school teachers in Canada and India, and social entrepreneurs in the Netherlands, and has been featured in the media everywhere from BBC Radio to Brazilian tech magazines.My hope is that the Empathy Library will be a useful resource for teachers, reading groups, film clubs and empathy projects in community organisations and workplaces. And it is also somewhere you can go to find an engaging book to read your kids or a classic movie to watch on a Friday night.
So writing Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution has been an extraordinary journey that has taken me from deep childhood memories through to digital database design. I’ve learned that there is so much more to writing a book that putting words onto the page.
Roman Krznaric is a writer, cultural thinker and founding faculty member of The School of Life. His new book, Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution, is published by Rider Books. Visit the Empathy Library at www.empathylibrary.com
Watch Roman’s new TEDx talk about the book – How to Start an Empathy Revolution