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A Question of Empathy

This season, UW Creative Research Fellow Daniel Alexander Jones leads us on a journey through the power of empathy in the arts. His performance of Jomama Jones: Black Light is December 12–14, 2019.


September 23, 2019

By Daniel Alexander Jones

The power of empathy in the arts is evident in its capacity to invite us to realize that when we are willing to leave the bounds of what we know, we find ourselves anew. As we begin our season-long exploration of empathy, we encourage our audiences to step out of their own comfort zones and enter into another's perspectives.

Our differences provide us with immense generative potential. When framed as insurmountable distance between us, we are invited to view our differences as things to be labored through in pursuit of perceived similarities; or as things to be minimized in pursuit of comfort; or things to be feared for the challenges they bring our way, particularly challenges to our certainties and to the limits of what we know to be true. 

However, when our differences are viewed as distinctions and as particular locations, each with their own particular perspectives, we might invite a transformative view. If I let go of my need to say “we are all human beings” as a way of avoiding paying attention to the differences among us, I invite myself to consider that each human body, while rooted in the same template, is unique, and that the experiences of that body moving through time and space and cultural context will bring each human being a different set of challenges and insights which help to illuminate their part of the whole. 

If I invite myself to consider that the layers of cultural experience that each human being participates in over the course of their lifespan shape the rhythms of their breathing, the utterances they make, the thoughts they tumble in their minds, the melodies they make, and the patterns their bodies make moving through space; these layers also inform, and in some cases determine, what freedom means in action, what love means, what hope means, how value is determined, the extent of suffering, the possibilities for movement, and a sense of purpose, to name but some of the impacts. 

Theatre, music, dance, and visual art all give us a means to make temporary structures that can house our distinctions, and reveal the prismatic power of our differences to one another, and thereby reveal a greater sense of an expansive and often elusive whole. Human beings make meaning, holding bits of memory in our hands, and testifying of our pains and our joys, our fears and our resolve, our hard-won wisdom and our continued sense of vulnerability in the face of past, present and future unknowns. 

Empathy as an active, conscious state of vulnerable presence in community,
is itself a kind of temporary structure — a shared neural network, a series of bridges, a deliberately porous membrane that allows us to extend our senses beyond the limits of our perceived self in service of feeling the distinctions between ourselves and others, and in service of feeling the meanings made, the vistas seen, the hopes held, and the rhythms of the breathing of those who are quite different that we are. We do so, not to parse them for commonalities in order to discard the rest. Rather, we may recognize those commonalities as footholds or sturdy branches, from which we may see and feel just how vast and different experience can be. We will be asked to touch charged places: grief, anger, upheaval, resilience, incalculable momentum and resolve. We will feel the forces of collapse, sudden expansion, and radical transformation. 

In so doing we will be disoriented, but we won’t be lost. The power of empathy in the arts is evident in its capacity to invite us — all of us: our bodies, our minds, our souls — to realize that when we are willing to leave the bounds of what we know, we find ourselves anew.