Empathy isn’t nice, but it’s damn necessary

By Nina Bogosavac, Our Future Europe 2014 participant from the Netherlands

In a blog written after the exchange, I concluded with some surprise that, already in the first conversations with the participants from Kosovo and Serbia, I was a little less open-minded than I thought. I caught myself in a ‘know it all’ position, thinking that I had the monopoly on the truth when it comes to conflicts in the Balkan history and that even though I live in 2014, they would surely run behind a tad bit. It’s needless to say that even though the exchange didn’t blow away my fundamental ideas, it did help me break the bubble in which I had been staying comfortably – till now.

Conflict Role Play

Conflict Role Play

Because of what happened: like me, everybody else had claimed the copyright on the truth as well. And whether you’re young and educated in The Netherlands or somewhere in the Balkans, that doesn’t really make a difference. You’re part of the ‘top notch’ of your country anyway, with plenty similarities. Shortly put this meant that during dinner smartphones are present and the general level of English is at least as high as my English is, if not higher. Oh, and in the Balkans, Berlin is seen as pretty cool getaway as well. Why do I give this lecture on ostensible Western prejudice? Because spreading and thereby maintaining incorrect images can be the root of a conflict, as almost every host-lecturer assured us during the exchange.

We tried to empathise with each other in the first part of the exchange. We tried to understand the experience people in Serbia and Kosovo have with: their media, the past, and the now. However, we only actually did manage to get closer to each other in part two. Don’t get me wrong, Belgrade was a truly worthwhile excursion. Partly because it took place in the summer holidays, the evenings were sultry and the local food amazing. To learn about conflict and media in such an atmosphere is simply put: not a punishment.

What a difference with the conditions that shaped the experience in The Netherlands: soaked to the skin because of the rain and school deadlines still running through my mind, I was lugging around my backpack to the campsite in the Dutch village of Ommen. Ironically, in Belgrade I asked myself the question: didn’t the delightful and comfortable conditions, and the fact that we were perfect strangers, not also form some sort of barrier to actually break through some mindsets and silenced conflicts?

The first step in the good direction seemed to me to listen to the stories people wanted to tell. By asking questions, I wanted to get to know how they experienced things. Was it right that I saw something a certain way? I made – out of bare necessity – these tricky political situations and memories less abstract by making them mine. Would I have the same readiness as the Serbian and Kosovar participants to meet an apparent enemy? I can state that for a lot of fellow students the participation wasn’t just a fun fieldtrip, it was a much needed exploration of something that to many other people would mean the base layer of a conflict. It’s worth to mention that even the will to sign up for the exchange wasn’t even that easy, they had to overcome the fear of possible reactions of their surroundings. But even these prospects didn’t hold them back.

By participating, the base for violent conflicts was thrown out. That is the dehumanization of people. If you truly project yourself into another person, then you would never want to hurt them for the sake of, let’s say, a piece of land. “If you want social change, then step into someone else’s shoes.” This quote of the author and co-creator of the School of Life, Roman Krznaric, articulates my feelings well. Krznaric, who himself is a hodgepodge of ethnicity, sees this shift as a necessity. According to him empathy is even the key to human survival in the 21st century.

Krznaric – who stated that he does not even pronounce his own surname well – is just like me a mix of cultures. He feels Australian, lives in England, has a Croation surname but his parents are from Romania and Poland. So, what are you then? I think that the ownership of an ‘unusual’ last name forces you to think deeply about your own nationality and beyond (mental) borders. Because if you don’t completely belong to the bed you were born in, then where do you?

The reason for my participation shelters in various reasons. But no matter how much I focussed on my own experience and searched my own soul: testing my sense of empathy didn’t harm anyone. On the contrary, when according to Krznaric the only thing that people want is to be heard. “Take my eight year old daughter”, he said. “By appointing her feelings when she’s angry or mad at me, I lower the level of rouse and her tears stop running.” Mind you: even if the interpretation of why she’s unhappy isn’t accurate. Krznaric explains that by just appointing and articulating one another’s frustration, issues are being solved. This mechanism works the same on a global level: pointing out the pain of the other party decreases the chance of a conflict with fifty percent, according to Krznaric.

If we would make an effort to picture and feel someone else’s thought, reasoning and emotions, if we were to do so more often, the world would be a better place.

*The quotes of Roman Krznaric are conducted from a personal interview with him.