Shakespeare and the refugees: Dare to love

What did Shakespeare, the ‘universal poet of love’, say about refugees? ”Imagine that you see the wretched strangers, their babies at their backs, with their poor luggage, plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation… What would you think, to be thus used? This is the stranger’s case, and this our mountainish inhumanity.”Shakespeare reminds us how frightening empathy can be, but how without it, we cannot be human.

In 1593 anti-immigration riots swept through London: Gangs of youths rampaged through the street chanting anti-French slogans (“weele cut your throats in your temples praying!”) against the refugees pouring into the city from neighbouring France’s vicious religious war.

One of six writers working on the play ‘the Booke of Sir Thomas More’, Shakespeare dramatized the scenes unforgettably for the stage. The play’s hero (Sir Thomas More) faces the rioters, and in a speech written by Shakespeare eloquently diffuses the situation – snuffing the riots out like a candle.

Put yourselves in your enemy’s shoes, More urges the rioters. How would you feel to be rejected by leaders who ‘spurn you like dogs’ and ‘whet their detested knives against your throats’? “What would you think to be thus used?” (How would you feel in this situation?)


Love is when we see somebody for who they are – not for how we feel about them

This ‘simple’ question (how would you feel?) is at the heart of all love and courage. In our own present times of terror, war, fear and flight it must surely be at the heart of any courageous, reasoned response. But it’s easier said than done. When we’re afraid we close our empathy down. So strong is our fear of the changes we feel the other person may confront us with, that we stop really seeing them. We say “love is blind”, but the opposite is actually true – fear is blind – love is daring to see further than our fear.

Shakespeare understood that love is seeing somebody for who they really are – their real needs and situation – free of our own fear and defences. Love is built on this empathy, but empathy requires us to move past our own fears. Empathy takes courage.

Love is seeing the big picture

Shakespeare’s empathetic speech in ‘the Booke of Thomas More’ reminds me of agape – the classical Greek word for our ability to love and care for strangers as well as those closest to us. Here in Western Europe we most often think of love as an overwhelming, passionate force we have no power over – and this narrows and limits us. The Greeks identified six types of love, Eros – our present day romantic love – was just one of them. Why don’t we talk about or value the others anymore? Might we be afraid of the courage and discipline they take?

Philia: Love and loyalty: The Greeks valued Philia, or deep friendship, far more highly than ErosPhilia is the feeling of loyalty we have towards our children, friends, family and comrades. Philia honours the sacrifices we’ll willingly make for them – knowing they too would make them for us.

Agape: The love for all, for everyone, for all humanity. Agape was later translated into the Latin ‘caritas’, the root of our present day word “charity”. Agape is our capacity for social empathy, our understanding that “we’re all in it together.”

Philautia: Love of the self. The Greeks distinguished between negative self-love – narcissism – and philautiaPhilautia is built on the belief that if we like ourselves, and feel secure in ourselves, we then have love to give others. As Aristotle wrote: “All friendly feelings for others are an extension of a man’s feelings for himself.”

Love doesn’t just ‘happen to us’ – we choose it, we build it

We need to free ourselves of Eros and embrace these other definitions. Unlike Eros – philia, agape and philautia do not arrive like arrows shot or thunderbolts from above – they are conscious, volitional. We build them and practise them as skills, brick by brick, stone by stone, act by act. They require daily practise and discipline. When we build a culture that encourages valuing and creating small acts of love and caring, the results can be extraordinary.

In a 2014 US study “The Influence of a Culture of Companionate Love in a Long-term Care Setting” (Administrative Science Quarterly), 185 employees, 108 patients, and 42 patient family members at a large, healthcare facility were interviewed, 16 months apart,.  The survey found that employees who felt they worked in a loving, caring culture reported higher levels of satisfaction and teamwork, and showed up to work more often. The survey also found that this type of culture related directly to client outcomes, improved patient mood, quality of life, satisfaction, and fewer trips to the ER.

A follow-up study looked at seven different industries – from financial services to real estate. It interviewed  3,201 people – with the same result: People who worked in a culture where they felt free to express affection, tenderness, caring, and compassion for one another­ were more satisfied with their jobs, committed to the organization, and accountable for their performance.

How do we create a more compassionate, caring culture in our organization? How can we communicate in a way that shows we really care?

Dare to ask difficult questions: During crises and conflicts courage, empathy and curiosity turn us outwards, away from our own reactions and towards a deeper understanding of the other person and their buried needs and fears. So much conflict resolution is based on curiosity: Which unfulfilled needs really lie behind this conflict? How can we reach and fulfill them? Never be afraid to ask yourself “what is this person really afraid of?”, “what do they really need?”, “how can these needs be met?”, “what was our role in creating these needs, and what role can we play in meeting them?”

Questions are the answer: Open questions encourage people to explore their own feelings and reactions. They’re key to building trust and caring. Try to avoid closed questions that invite limited ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers. They often don’t lead anywhere. Open questions often start with a How, What, Who, Where. “How would you feel in this situation?” is one such open question.

Give people time and space: Curiosity is about space – lots of it. Give people around you the time and space to expand, elaborate and grow. It’s a key reason why open questions are prized by therapists, analysts, negotiators and mediators. They give people space – and time.

Love is ‘we, we, we’, not ‘me, me, me’: True empathy is often about avoiding focusing in on our own reactions during crises, and instead staying open to the other person – no matter how difficult. It’s about being willing, first and foremost, to re-evaluate our own reactions and preconceptions. To consciously ignore any hidden agenda we may have, shrug aside our own thoughts and feelings and concentrate with our whole self on the other person.