Zoe Weil’s Wisdom – Empathy-driven Activism

Dear Readers!

Community Problem Solving

Community Problem Solving

“The World Becomes What You Teach” – Zoe Weil. 17 min Tedx is linked below in text.

I resist “must see” or “must read” as instruction to others.  I try to restrict myself to pushing thought of suffering, related economics and politics, our responses and why we respond as we do, to the fore.  I hope some of it “does some good.”   I’ll restrict myself  to saying I don’t insist others take in Weil’s wisdom, but it’s very, very, good!  Tedx Talk and article links are in paragraphs below; Zoe Weil’s website is at bottom of this post. 

Weil ‘hits’ on a human truth in her nicely paced and deeply encouraging Tedx talkeveryone is ‘generally predisposed to want to alleviate sufferingThe cause, in my view,  is empathy – we are born with it. I explore empathy below in reference to a brief article, also by Weil, published elsewhere on the web. Although she does not emphasize ’empathy’ as a driver, I believe her article is a ‘direct hit’ on some of why we choose to take action, or not,  to alleviate suffering. Combining insights from her Tedx talk, and her article, gives opportunity to expand the underlying common theme – alleviating suffering.

Despite empathy, youth often feel inadequate to meet challenges of life and earth, (as do many adults!).  As Weil makes clear, in The World Becomes What You Teach, given an environment that allows and encourages honest discussion about suffering, in home communities and elsewhere on the planet, youth “suddenly come alive“.  I’m totally enthusiastic! Weil’s specific idea in this talk is school-based solution-finding. I hope every teacher not already doing so begins to bring age-appropriate activities into learning that are honest about our world’s issues. She also addresses the meme of “protecting the children from knowing of suffering” – describing a teen who said: “We should have learned about this in kindergarten.”  (Age appropriate, as caregivers including teachers know, always applies. Young children are avid environmentalists and concerned about justice and fairness at levels that do not cause nightmares.)

To Zoe Weil’s Tedx Talk, I would add : this education is for more than only youth in schools.  Communities are an ideal problem solving resource.  Outsiders who view themselves as “solution finders” may mean well, but can be condescending toward communities they identify as “in need of help“.  Targeted recipients are nearly always well able to identify and analyze suffering and explore its causes.  Groups anywhere in the world, sometimes described as “in need of direction,” often with “impoverished” as a criteria, can and do create and carry out best-fit solution.  From my observation and experience, the key is they must be given opportunity to ask questions and gather information, as in a community based consensus problem solving meeting, (see ‘community problem solving’ photo!). Consensus meetings greatly benefit when given guidance and structure by a facilitator until a process is understood.  (A proviso – solution achievement requires access to resources, which is where the less impoverished can play a role!)

In addition to catching her Tedx talk, this morning, I read a brief article by Zoe Weil, “It’s Not About You.” In the article, she indirectly touches base with the ‘condescension’ I mention above.  She writes to contemporaries who, like her, are concerned and activist-minded.  She chides herself and them for over-focus on “personal growth/development“. The focus, she agrees, is highly laudable.  But, she asserts, (in gracious language), “personal growth/development” as underlying driver can prevent a deeper, less comfortable, more realistic, nitty-gritty understanding and response to causes and remedy of suffering among humans and in nature.

“Thinking expansively, rather than personally, offers a different lens that leads to a different question — one that fits the cultural creative mindset, but also promotes compassionate action rather than self-involvement.”

I’d reword “thinking personally” to “comfortable activism”.  I’d suggest “comfortable activism” is often not personal enough.  I suggest a deeper level of “thinking personally” comes with allowing, rather than pushing away, the deep discomfort of visceral empathy.  It’s my observation, experience, and assertion – that children have a measure of “wide open empathy”.  This inborn impulse to empathy is why children (sometimes privately) are puzzled and troubled when they witness violence and injustice, (even minor, even in families, schools, communities.) They literally feel the injustice of abuse or unfair treatment; it’s physical, “something doesn’t feel right” (see note and link below this post). “Gut level visceral empathic experience” is deeply personal, which is why it’s so uncomfortable! 

Most adults learn early to “manage” empathy.  As very young children, from a position of extreme vulnerability, we intuitively recognize that safety, even survival, is best assured by our ‘maintaining good standing’ with caregivers. Caregivers live in a world that ‘measures and controls’ empathy. We, following suit, begin to practice “anti-empathy” responses to suffering. Anti-empathy strategies include learning to ‘not see’ abuse/injustice;  see it and decide to “never challenge greater authority”;  see it and decide to “join the safe, winning, powerful side”;  see it and dissociate to an imaginary refuge world where wisdom and protection are available;  see it and decide to “stay alive long enough to escape to somewhere else”.  Often we learn to use more than one of these strategies.

Eventually the children become the adults. As adults, we continue our anti-empathy strategy skill-set:  We may ‘not see’ to avoid empathic discomfort;  we may become the authority that allows, justifies, or makes excuses for abuse and injustice;  or, now that we’re adults and have power, we are ‘the greater authority’ in many cases – we may ‘take charge’, which is where ‘condescension’ may flavor our approach.  Our tribe is our “safe, winning, powerful” group – so we may emphasize our tribe’s needs as higher on a ‘worthiness’ scale.  (Tribes vary in size from family to social group to national – we treasure security of membership and belong to more than one).  We may “live in la-la land” (which I think is a strategy tendency Weil’s article addresses in herself and peers).  We have a range of ‘locations’ if ‘escape to somewhere else’ is our strategy.  Locations range from “staying in our heads” to heading for the mountains and living in a cave!


Zoe Weil is co-founder and President of The Institute for Humane Education, “Learning, Living, and Teaching for a Better World”, http://humaneeducation.org/

Note re “children literally feel injustice”: linked article “Negative Love” by Bob Hoffman, at Hoffman Institute, explores/explains how anxiety about safety develops in a child.   Hoffman’s emphasis is on the child directly experiencing the injustice, with some emphasis on mother-child bond.  I would consider witnessing injustice equally damaging; and would suggest ‘biological mother’ can be any caregiver who is in the child’s moment-to-moment life as primary caregiver,  (Hoffman later in article shifts to ‘primary caregiver’).    Hoffman’s article is excellent; he presents concurring evidence and argument from multiple highly recognized sources with whom he worked.    (Hoffman was 76 when he died in 1997.)

My Very Best Wishes! MaggieAnn


About maggieannthoeni

A description once given of me was "rooted in the earth while roaming the stars" - and this has felt 'right'. I believe in something akin to this for each of us. I am a passionate supporter of discovering the autonomous self while serving the whole as primary intent. I believe in discovery of innate principles, clearing the overlay of socialization that obscures this from us. I believe it is our responsibility to leave no one behind - most particularly to respond to suffering as best we can whereever we find it, whenever we are made aware. I believe in this for the insect as well as the most magnificent form of humanity. I believe in brother/sisterhood without boundary. I believe in righteous indignation when it is appropriate, but do not believe in an enemy. I believe in consciousness, in intelligence, in logic, in rationality, in emotion, in transcendence - and am convinced until we generally practice explore and honor all this in ourselves, we remain profoundly immature. (I believe real maturity is known and practiced by many young children, and not enough adults!)
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2 Responses to Zoe Weil’s Wisdom – Empathy-driven Activism

  1. Zoe Weil says:

    Thanks so much for sharing my TEDx talk, essay, and work with your readers MaggieAnn! Very much appreciated. And I so enjoyed reading your thoughts and perspectives.

    • maggieannthoeni says:

      Thank you also – and I apologize for being so long in acknowledging your kind words. It’s so good to know you and others are ‘out there’ stirring and stretching our thoughts and awareness.

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