Empathy part 3 - Consolation


The story of a mustard seed

Empathy can be a healing emotion, it consoles us at times of grief or difficulty. One of the most famous stories of the Buddha is on the theme of empathy. It is the story of a woman called Kisa Gotami and her search for a single mustard seed.

Kisa Gotami's only child has died and she is beside herself with grief, she can not accept that the child is dead and is looking for help. Not knowing what to do the people of her village send her to the Buddha, the wisest person they know.

But how can the Buddha possibly help a woman whose child has died? 
Bhikkhu Jayasara tells the story of what happens in this little video. 

The particular and the universal

We can see Kisa Gotami's story mirrored in the way various artists work with the theme of empathy. In expressing something 'particular' of their own lives and experience, they tap into universal truths of all of us. 

Being human is itself a particular experience, we are all 'in the same boat', as it were,  wanting to be happy, hoping to avoid suffering.

In this way, empathy in art can be an consolation. 

It is my duty to voice the sufferings of people, the sufferings that never end and are as big as mountains.
— Käthe Kollwitz

The sculptor Käthe Kolwitz (1867 - 1945) also lost a child. She had a son, Peter, who died fighting in the second world war. Seventeen years later she completeled a sculpture for the place where he was buried. It is called 'The Grieving Parents'.  

It depicts her and her husband. They are separate from one another, just as we are all alone with our own grief, each of them holding themselves in a posture of grieving. 

Käthe Kollwitz - The Grieving Parents 

Käthe Kollwitz - The Grieving Parents 

The sculpture is about much more than those particular parents and the loss of their son. You notice that the figures are kneeling on the ground, they are apparently asking forgiveness for having sent their children into war. 

John Seed says in the Huffington Post - 
Grief and loss are universal feelings that bind us, and sharing them with others leads to consolation and social transformation. It is not surprising that in 1936 the Nazi party barred Kollwitz from displaying her work which they branded as “degenerate.” Deep feelings for the sufferings and losses of others—which lead to collective introspection—can lead to resistance against authoritarian politicians and those who advocate war and other forms of sacrifice and suffering.

Kisa Gotami and  Käthe Kollwitz are both consoled by knowing that they are not alone in the loss of their children, not alone in their suffering.