3 January 2017

You know that sensation when you come across a word, or a phrase, and start seeing it everywhere? I have that with empathy.

Peter Lefort presenting.

Six months ago I started working with the Eden Project, on community resilience from the ground up. From neighbour to neighbour and outwards to entire communities. Before that I worked alongside local environmental groups in Oxfordshire (take a look at the wonderful CAG Project for some inspiration). I’ve had hundreds and hundreds of conversations with people who describe themselves as ordinary, but have done wonderful and powerful things to bring their communities together.

So many of them talk about how much they have learned about their community, the people they share their space with – who they are, where they’re from, the skills and stories they have to offer their neighbourhood. And I’ve only just started to realise that what they are talking about, though they might not use the word itself, is empathy. The ability to look through the eyes of someone else and gain an understanding of their experience. To not succumb to prejudice, no matter how subtle or unconscious.

Peter (far right of picture) organised a Big Lunch for his street this year

But now I see it everywhere. I see it in every Big Lunch. I see it in the Feast for Peace, organised after the EU Referendum result to send a different message than one of division and fear. I see it in the actions of protestors putting themselves in harms’ way to stand up for the futures of those who can’t stand up for themselves. And if the events of this year have shown us anything, it’s that we are in need of empathy more than ever. Both to teach, but also to exhibit ourselves.

The writer Rebecca Solnit once said “In the wake of an earthquake, a bombing, or a major storm, most people are altruistic, urgently engaged in caring for themselves and those around them, strangers and neighbours as well as friends and loved ones. The image of the selfish, panicky, or regressively savage human being in times of disaster has little truth to it… The prevalent human nature in disasters is resilient, resourceful, generous, empathic, and brave.”

We are facing disasters, that seems like an appropriate word, and the worst thing we could do is to forget about empathy, even with those who seem to represent everything that we see as wrong. We all have the capacity for it, but sometimes we need a reason or an excuse to use it, it needs to be provoked.

So while here at The Big Lunch we’re celebrating the sparks which drive us to do the things we do, I want to offer a provocation to empathy. Use it, recognise it, point it out and celebrate it for the challenging but vital behaviour it is. No matter the potential disasters we face as a society, I truly believe that empathy offers hope that no division must be permanent, and no future is impossible.

I want to offer a provocation to empathy. Use it, recognise it, point it out and celebrate it for the challenging but vital behaviour it is.