Empathy and Identity

How did the achievements of others become our own? This question comes after all the recent events in sports and politics.

In sports, like the Olympics and Tennis, the UK is often a united whole with the individual countries forgotten. Yesterday, for the first time in many a year, a British sportsman won Wimbledon. Suddenly the whole of Britain is celebrating, “We won, at last!” A few Scots are saying, “No, Scotland won.” From my perspective, nations don’t play sports, individuals do, so Andy Murray won that one. Obviously, in football, it’s a bit more difficult since the teams share their names with their nations. Still, Portugal the country didn’t win UEFA Euro 2016, a group of skilled athletes from Portugal did (or maybe I’m getting a bit too postmodern). When a government does something bad, the nation is blamed, as if it were meaningfully unified. Likewise, if it does something good, everyone gets a share of the credit. Imagine my confusion years ago when a Spanish waiter told me “Give us back Gibraltar.” What have I got to do with Gibraltar? I’ve never been there, and certainly have no say over who “owns” it (and nor do I have interest to). I may be British, legally and culturally, but I am not the UK.

Years ago I saw something on telly saying that what we see we experience. The example was a rowing competition, and the idea was that as you observe their effort, somehow, the brain interprets it as your effort. This is something I’ve experienced with various things. Watching sheep give birth, for example, is a tense affair, as if you were able to get involved and help (which, as a male human, is pretty difficult). I’m not really interested in sport, but I have experienced at times the elation or disappointment of “my team” winning or losing, whether it be England in the world cup, Wimbledon or the Olympics.

There’s a good word in Spanish to describe this: ajena, which means, roughly, ‘of someone else’. At some point our empathy with someone else becomes identity, and we lay claim to logros ajenos, someone else’s achievement, or achievement by proxy. It doesn’t quite sound fair, yet in many circumstances is accepted and even encouraged.

I’ve also been experiencing this lately with Brexit. For the first time in my life I feel identified with politics, not because I’m particularly attached to Europe or the UK, but because Brexit could affect my legal status in Spain. I have been living here freely, like any Spanish or European citizen, because of free movement. Suddenly that is put at risk. Will I be able to stay here as I have done? Am I expected to apply for a visa? If I hadn’t followed the news, I could have carried on with my life without any knowledge of it, yet a distant happening is affecting how I feel. Some of my identity and empathy is certainly invested in it, and quite rightly, but it isn’t my life, the life I live day to day, just one of many influences upon it.

I’m quite fascinated but Roberto Assagioli’s idea that “what we identify with controls us,” I think it’s a key that could open up so much insight into how we are. When we identify with a group, for example, we become subject to the ebbs and flows of that group, and to some extent lose the right to our own individual thoughts and feelings. If individuals can’t think and reflect for themselves, they’ll be pushed and pulled by a blind mass, not their own insights – it’ll be the “blind leading the blind.” Obviously, this can lead to stupid and/or dangerous results. Perhaps there is a point where the overlapping of empathy and identity is useful, such as compassion for a fellow human being, but I think it’s important to look into where these two are entangled so they don’t trip us up.