How can we practice radical empathy and self-care?

Digital spaces can sometimes get a bit noisy: a lot of ideas, thoughts, demands, needs, cries for help overlapping one another, and it can be hard to spend the emotional energy to sift through it, to know how to respond, and to know whether responding is even necessary. I want to encourage everyone participating in a rapidly growing and diversifying artistic community like fiction podcasting, or even podcasting in general, to deeply consider how to best embody the notions of radical empathy and self-care, as two linked ideas.

Radical empathy refers to the practice of actively striving to understand the feelings and experiences of others, and through doing this, to improve their lives in a concrete fashion. Khen Lampert, a philosopher and professor who works with the theory of radical compassion, clarifies that its practice “includes the inner imperative to change reality in order to alleviate the pain of others”. It’s not simply a case of listening and saying, “That sucks”; it’s looking for ways that one can reach out and change someone’s life for the better or fight for that change to be realized.

What can radical empathy look like in a digital space, or in an artistic medium heavily mediated by social forums like Twitter? It could simply look like conscious signal-boosting with hashtags that promote visibility of those who could benefit from your platform, but it also looks like taking steps to improve others’ lives in indirect ways. That means hiring sensitivity readers for your writing, casting marginalized people in roles that represent them positively, sensitively, or wholly, and both offering and accepting criticism with grace.

Nina Power, a wonderful culture critic and lecturer in philosophy, does a lot of great work in untangling the different forms of empathy, and why it’s important to do this work in our current era where people are often pressured to “empathize” with others who treat them poorly, usually according to racist, sexist, transphobic, or homophobic biases. Because of this, it’s important for me to note that when I encourage people to practice radical empathy with each other, it’s with the underlying assumption that it is a practice done with empathy towards yourself, as well.

I’m speaking here, of course, about self-care. Self-care isn’t a selfish act. It’s about knowing what we need to do to take care of ourselves so that we are then able to take care of others. Without the practice of taking care of ourselves, it’s even more draining to fight for the betterment of the lives of others, which may even include our own lives as well (for example, a Latina participating in activism to support Latin American communities). It might take the form of an effective use of the mute button, or disconnecting from social media for a specific set of time, or taking a break from work even if one doesn’t feel like it’s deserved.

What happens, then, when someone says that their self-care is to not get involved in fighting systemic oppression? The result, of course, is a lack of change in oneself and in the environment they affect, and thus a lack of empathy. The argument of “not getting involved” is often leveraged by those with privilege, or relative privilege, because they have the luxury of not being affected; people who are affected by system oppressions are already involved, and ignoring it may even become dangerous for them personally.

And of course, it depends (my favorite phrase): marginalized people are often held up to a higher and double standard than non-marginalized people, and expected to carry the burden of fixing their own lives without the help of privileged voices. Taking the time to disengage from this cycle of oppression is self-care. Often, especially in the digital space, marginalized people are vulnerable to the vicarious trauma of watching the same news repeated over and over, with no discernible change in response. Not taking the time to heal from that trauma will impede the ability to practice radical empathy in a way that is genuinely nourishing and impactful.

What does radical empathy look like for you? How do you practice self-care as a creator, and as a fan? Fans are the backbone of communities like these, and all creators are fans of someone at some point. Empathetic fans might discourage trolls or fight against racist commentary, or support an independent creator financially or through word of mouth, for instance. Remember that you are responsible for your actions and your patterns, and those will in turn have an impact on your community. We must not just take care of each other after the fact, but work to change the facts. Remember this includes taking care of yourself; plan self-care into your workflow if you haven’t already. You deserve it.

This essay was originally published in Audio Dramatic Issue #25, February 25, 2019.