Green Lantern Abin Sur, Hal Jordan’s predecessor, formed the Indigo Tribe and powered them with the collective compassion of the sentient beings of the universe. The first tribe member was Iroque, who was one of Abin Sur’s greatest enemies, her hatred for Abin Sur eventually culminating in murdering his daughter. The indigo rings force their wearers to feel compassion for those around them. They are able to channel the emotional spectrum of other lanterns in their vicinity, meaning they can use the power of rage, avarice, fear, will, hope, or love if such lanterns are nearby. Abin Sur wanted to rehabilitate the criminals he arrested, forcing them to take the perspective of those they had hurt and use the power of compassion to help others. His ultimate goal in creating the Indigo Tribe, though, was to develop a way to neutralize the Guardians of the Universe should they become a threat, an eventuality he foresaw and worked to protect the universe against. The Guardians monitored the universe and though they founded the Green Lantern Corps to enforce their laws, they mistrusted the emotional spectrum and valued reason above all else. Abin Sur recognized the path this could take them down and wanted to prevent it.
Can we force empathy upon others? And if we could, would we do it? True, the criminals in the Indigo Tribe stopped committing crimes and hurting others. However, they seemed to become brainwashed drones, only able to feel the emotions of those around them rather than their own. The members of the Indigo Tribe were considered psychopaths, which is a variation on Antisocial Personality Disorder, a diagnosis for which the best “treatment” we currently have is prison (it keeps others safe from people with this diagnosis, though it does little to rehabilitate them). But would we really force compassion on them at the expense of who they are as human beings and their own free will? Once the rings were removed from the Indigo Tribe members, they reverted back to who they had been before. Being forced to experience empathy and do good had not created lasting change in their lives. Would they have to wear the rings forever and forego their very natures for the rest of their lives in order to experience some healing? There was a glimpse of hope: after wearing the indigo ring for years, Iroque was able to accept responsibility and feel and express remorse for what she had done to Abin Sur’s family. In fact, her empathic response was so strong that it served as the foundation for reforging the indigo central power battery after it had been destroyed. Perhaps being exposed to compassion actually can lead to experiencing empathy of one’s own.
What, then, can we do to build empathy in ourselves and others around us? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could accelerate a young child’s ability to understand others’ needs and perspectives? Wouldn’t our youths’ teenage years be easier if we could get them to look beyond themselves more often during this introspective stage of life? And wouldn’t it be grand if adults who often point out these deficiencies in children and adolescents were able to show them the same compassion they would like to see from said children and adolescents and model it in their own relationships? Thankfully, there are ways to strengthen and increase compassion in our lives.
Empathy begins with recognizing our own emotions and those of others, so it is important to be able to identify a variety of emotions, learn how to recognize emotions in ourselves and others, and understand how these emotions affect our bodies, behaviors, and thoughts. In working with children, I often encourage parents to talk about their own emotions and how they affect them, notice aloud what emotions they see their children experiencing and how they know that, and discuss possible emotional motivations for their children’s behaviors, as well as others’ behaviors that they witness. Reading books is also an excellent way to improve compassion. Authors often explain the inner workings and motivations of their characters, and books are often longer and can include more information than movies, plays, television shows, and videogames (all visual media that often subscribe to the artistic mantra “show, don’t tell”), which also tend to require you to infer their characters’ internal states. I view movies and plays as short stories, as opposed to the serialized storytelling found in many television shows and book series. With greater information about characters and their situations may come greater empathy for them. The visual media might work better to improve empathy if running dialogues occurred during them amongst audience members or if conversations about such issues occurred afterward. With some foundational compassion skills, such visual storytelling might prove to be a higher-level course in which to practice empathy without being told what the right answer is.
Another way to build compassion skills is through perspective taking. Empathy requires the understanding that not everyone sees and experiences the world as we do. Consider the optical illusion that can be seen as an old woman or as a young woman. Both are correct perceptions of the picture, and we can train ourselves to see both pictures with patience and help from others. It can be helpful to talk through the perspectives of different characters in stories to get a variety of perspectives on the events of the narrative. Villains’ perspectives can be especially important to understand, because we often see ourselves as the heroes of our own stories and those who disagree with us as the villains. The Wicked Witch of the West becomes a bit more relatable when we recognize that Dorothy inadvertently murdered her sister upon arriving in Oz and was given the magical shoes that by rights should have gone to a family member.
With practice, we can begin to move to the difficult task of applying these skills to our own lives. Perhaps it was through the years of being forced to feel the emotions of others and to take their perspectives that Iroque was finally able to embrace the lessons of the indigo ring without needing it to do the work for her. And maybe Abin Sur could have used some time with an indigo ring to help him recognize that what he was doing to the Indigo Tribe was arguably cruel and unusual punishment, where he viewed the possible ends of rehabilitating criminals as justifying the means of brainwashing them, instead of remembering that it was his duty to serve and protect his sector of the universe.
Where have you noticed compassion and empathy lacking? What have you found to be helpful in building compassion and empathy in others? How do you model compassion and empathy to those you work with? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Facebook page!