Pentecost 51

Pentecost 51
My Psalm 51

The Lost Art of Empathy

Paul Zak, author of “The Moral Molecule” made a startling discovery. Using a formula for drama developed by the German playwright Gustav Freytag, Zak found that narratives can act as a trigger in the release of neurochemicals such as cortisol and oxytocin. We’ve discussed oxytocin in an earlier post but let’s review and learn about cortisol.

Cortisol is known as the stress hormone because it is released when the body is stressed. A part of the fight or flight response, cortisol has several useful functions. Secreted by the adrenal glands, cortisol aids in glucose metabolism and the regulation of one’s blood pressure. It plays a part in the body’s immune system, offering a quick burst of energy when survival is threatened. However, like most things, it is possible to have too much of a good thing and a chronic state of stress can lead to problems caused by the constant and/or higher levels of cortisol. Such problems can include impaired cognition, thyroid issues, blood sugar imbalances, a loss of bone density and muscle tissue, high blood pressure, increased abdominal fat, and overall lower immune responses such as inflammatory problems and slow healing. The increase in stomach fat has secondary consequences such as heart attacks, strokes, high cholesterol, and metabolic issues.

Freytag’s theory of drama development included exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement. Dr Zak’s brain scans proved that listeners would be moved to give generously to charities or scientific studies when the story captured their interest through an expository introduction to the content, a discourse which introduced and explained what was to follow, followed by attention-getting movement toward the crux of the story. However, the listener could not be left at the top of the mountain. The story had to slowly release the audience from the grips of the climatic peak, so as to not leave them prisoner to their cortisol reactions. The denouement, which literally means to untie, would resolve their concern and resolve the story in a satisfactory manner. The resulting satisfaction of the body as it rode the cortisol train up the narrative mountain and back down again would bring about the generous feelings. The story, when properly told according to Freytag’s formula, produced a sense of empathy.

Jonathan Gottschall explains it this way: “Human minds yield helplessly to the suction of the story. No matter how hard we concentrate, no matter how deep we dig in our heels, we just can’t resist the gravity of alternate worlds. A writer lays down words, but they are inert. They need a catalyst to come to life. The catalyst is the reader’s imagination.”

Maria Popova took the studies of psychologist Robert Adler and Dr Paul Zak to arrive at her conclusion: “Stories are powerful because they transport us into other people’s worlds but, in doing that, they change the way our brains work and potentially change our brain chemistry — and that’s what it means to be a social creature.”

What it means to be a social creature…That could very be the synopsis of most religions and spiritualities. It is the art of empathy that separates us from lower animals. The Internet recently buzzed with pictures of a pit-bull dog that carried its injured friend, a Chihuahua, to safety. Another viral video showed one species of animal dying of loneliness for its longtime companion with whom it had been separated. Once reunited, Mr. G, the goat, and Jellybean, the donkey amazed animal behaviorists and vets as they proved that the love between a goat and a donkey was life-saving. For those of us who believe our pets are simply personalities that walk around on four legs instead of two, this is nothing earth-shaking. For the science world, though, it is opening doors and triggering the release of cortisol and oxytocin, even among staid, emotionless researchers.

The key to the art of empathy, however, is listening to the story. To do that, we must first be quiet and secondly, pay attention. Ancient storytelling involved an actual connection between the storyteller and the audience. They were always in close proximity to each other. With the advent of motion pictures and later television, distance became a part of the storytelling. The digital age has increased that distance and called for a greater sense of artistry by the story teller. Still, the basic principles are the same. The five components suggested by Freytag one hundred and fifty years ago are still employed in connecting the listener to the story and creating empathy.

The challenge today is in getting the storyteller’s voice heard through the clamor of egos. We cannot be empathetic to another if we are only focused on ourselves. While seemingly unimportant to us, the stories of the network news are the stories of man and often predict our future. When presented with honesty and without too much dramatic elaboration, these stories remind us that all of mankind is connected. The future of one is the future of all. Empathy may very well be the saving grace of us all.

My Psalm 51

Forgive me, O God, for I am a sinner.
I care more for myself than others.
I have put myself on a pedestal.
Show me your way, O Creator.
Make new my heart;
Cleanse my soul.
Help me listen to your voice and not my own.
Let me love my neighbor.
The world needs my concern;
Let me hear its pleas;
Lead me to action.
Grant me a generous heart,
Willing hands,
A body of action.
Use me, O Lord, to do your will.
I will hear your words and live them, O God.


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