top of page

no intimacy no empathy

I must admit, despair is never far away. Divisions are present everywhere and they are so stark. When we feel disconnected, we are at such great risk of doing violence and harm.

This past week I listened to a video conversation this week, entitled "When meaning loses its meaning", between Nora Bateson and Dave Snowden. Nora is an award winning filmmaker, researcher, and writer. She is also the daughter of Gregory Bateson. Dave is an educator, researcher, consultant, and creator of the Cynefin Framework. Both are interested in noticing patterns that are embedded in the complexity of organizations, cultures, and systems.

The conversation was rich and grabbed my attention enough to listen to sections over again, to let the meaning sink in.

I am looking for a way through the divides. I was particularly drawn into thoughts and stories about making room for people to step into the space between the apparent divides and differences.

Snowden reflects on approaches that make it possible for people to discover connectedness.

"...the work we're doing at the moment on peace and conflict resolution post election in the States, is finally starting to focus on creating human intimacy around issues of common concern, rather than a entirely mediated discussion about areas of difference. ...where I was brought up, and certainly in indigenous traditions... when you do things together, then you can have (the) conversations...grand conversations are not the same as intimate conversations...Intimacy is absolutely key because without intimacy you have no empathy in a system.

Last week I volunteered at bike ride in support of a local organization. I was open to spend a few hours doing whatever would be helpful. They found a place for me in the kitchen completing the process of assembling sandwiches. I was assigned a partner who would open the sandwiches, pass them on to me, and I would add final ingredients and wrap up the sandwiches. We stood at the counter, looking forward, paying attention to making sure that we completed the task, and kept the process moving along. While we worked, there were periods where we talked, curiously asking and answering questions of each other to discover who we were with. As we continued, there were also times when we worked in silence, facing forward attending to our task. There was no script. We chose what we talked about, and when we did not. It offered a time to notice what we shared in common, and how we differed in our experiences. The silence was as interesting as the conversation.

We shared stories about life, family, experiences, where we were from, what we thought, and what we cared about, in my time with my sandwich making partner. And in that space between us, the words and the silence, a lot was going on. It offered a time to notice things in ourselves and our companion. Because there was no script or expectation of outcomes of discovery, what we took away was entirely up to us.

In the Bateson/Snowden conversation, Nora Bateson points to stories and possibilities of change:

When you tell me a story, the story that I hear is not the story that you told. I hear your story through my story, through my experience, and I change your story as it enters me, and when I reply then to your story it is this other kind of filtration version of a response, which is how you get the possibility for change

My time with my partner was limited. We may see each other again. and we may not. But I am changed by my experience of sharing stories. We could have been doing anything that made room for us to share stories in whatever way that we chose. The possibilities of change are always present when we enter the intimate space of sharing stories.

For many years I have been fascinated by artists who invite others, who may not consider themselves to be artists, into the process of "making" together. Art is a particular way of "doing" that is rich with possibility of discovery and meaning. People who devote themselves to making, to art, are aware that art is a way of doing, but it also is a way of knowing, communicating, and being. So I have such deep respect for artists who have the capacity to invite others into this multidimensional experience.

A quilting piece reflecting " vulnerability and openness" by Gail Jacob

My friend Gail Jacob is one of those people.

A couple of weeks ago the JustUs Cafe invited people into an open ended conversation about "what are arts of social change?"

Gail was in my small group conversation, in which we all shared perspectives, experiences, and stories. Gail is an artist, but she has also devoted much of her life in discovery of how to support people who are seen to be intellectually disabled, in ways that lift up their dignity, and make it possible for them for them to find their place in community.

For many years, Gail was the Executive Director of an innovative organization called Options in Community Living. Gail required that staff begin to write stories of their experiences, a form of journal writing. In staff meetings they would share stories of ordinary daily life, that would leave them laughing and crying:

I never thought about us being creative in an artistic way. But what I think I learned from that experience was that creativity could take us to another level with each other in relationship, and in our relationship to our work.

This storytelling led to Inclusion Press publishing a book, "Remembering the Soul of Our Work" (edited by John O'Brien and Connie Lyle O'Brien)

The effort to engage in a creative act that can be shared, is a way of doing/being/knowing that makes intimacy possible. As Dave Snowden says "no intimacy, no empathy in systems". Without empathy there is no possibility of collective change that can lead to thriving.

Gail reflects:

...there's something that happens when we engage together in a creative process that takes us out of ourselves and takes us deeper, and leads us to joy, and opens opportunities to communicate in really different ways.

Given the state of a world divided, there is a place for "the way" of artists knowing, being, doing, that has much to offer. I would say that we require an artfulness in bringing difference together in a space that offers discovery of connectedness in our joys and sorrows.

46 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page