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Connecting through empathy
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I'm reading
Connecting through empathy
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Pass it on
I'm reading
Connecting through empathy
Pass it on
Pass it on
Articles
12 November 2015

Connecting through empathy

Curiosity about the lives of strangers, I learned, can open us into empathy and self-understanding.

Written by Roman Krznaric

This story originally ran in issue #45 of Dumbo Feather

Image: supplied by Homeless of Melbourne

We often travel far and wide in our search for wellbeing and personal discovery, from adventure holidays to meditation retreats to wild landscapes that bring much needed perspective to our lives. But I believe that most of the existential nourishment we need can be found on our doorsteps.

Step outside and you will discover an extraordinary array of lives and minds in the form of the strangers you walk past every day: the guy with the snakehead tattoos who sells you a newspaper each morning, the twinkle-eyed lady who volunteers at your local library. It’s by harnessing our curiosity and discovering who they are and how they see the world that we make the most profound journeys of our lives.

This is something I discovered a few years ago on the streets of Oxford, UK, where I live. For several years I had noticed a dishevelled homeless guy who was always muttering slightly madly to himself, scrabbling around for cigarette butts and pacing the streets in bare feet, even in the snow. It never occurred to me that we’d have anything in common. But one day I stopped to talk to him. It turned out his name was Alan Human (really) and he had a philosophy degree from Oxford University. We subsequently developed a friendship based on a mutual interest in Aristotle’s ethics and pepperoni pizza.

Just as importantly, this encounter challenged my assumptions and stereotypes about the kind of people living in my neighbourhood. Isn’t it incredible how often we can be wrong in our judgements about others? Curiosity about the lives of strangers, I learned, can open us into empathy and self-understanding.

Each of us can embark on such empathic adventuring by walking out the door and having conversations that go beyond superficial talk, by becoming anthropologists of the human landscapes we inhabit. A conversation with a stranger at least once a week is a good prescription for existential health.

I’ve been particularly interested in how to scale up our understanding of other people’s lives. To that end, I’ve recently founded the world’s first Empathy Museum, a travelling adventure space for discovering what it’s like to be another person.

Our opening exhibit in London this year, A Mile In My Shoes, took the form of an interactive empathy shoe shop. You go inside and are fitted with the actual shoes of a stranger—maybe a former prisoner, a bearded drag queen or a woman whose child was killed in a tragic accident. You then literally walk a mile in that person’s shoes while listening to a narrative of their life.

It’s a powerful and intimate experience. Suddenly, there I was in the full-length waders of a sewerage worker or the slip-ons of a palliative care doctor, making a connection with their lives in ways that helped illuminate my own.

We collected the shoes and stories from a square mile by the River Thames, so the exhibit is a slice through the lives of the local community. But of course every story is also universal, touching on themes ranging from love and ambition to religion, ageing and politics.

When A Mile In My Shoes travels to Australia in February 2016, as part of the Perth International Arts Festival, we’ll be gathering more shoes and stories locally to add to our global collection of the lives of others. Whose stories do we need to hear? Bored school kids? Asylum seekers? Struggling househusbands? Indigenous activists? Fast-talking hairdressers?

The great delight of cultivating curiosity about strangers is being surprised. Being surprised that the ex-prisoner is a brilliant artist. Being surprised that a child has such wise thoughts on the struggles of growing old. And it is through this encounter with the unexpected that we begin to reassess who we are, and who we want to be.

Roman Krznaric

Roman Krznaric is the author of the international bestseller Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It, and founder of the world’s first Empathy Museum.

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