Over dinner, my partner and I met to discuss the result of our empathy exercise over the whole semester. In our discussion, we got back to the topic of dance performance. Last night, I was performing in a dance show, and reflecting on the show, I realized how much I as a dancer react to the audience. In a live performance, the audience is not just reacting to the dancers, as in the video we watched; the reaction goes both ways. Hearing the crowd come in got me excited, even though I couldn’t see them. I could feel the stillness of the room as we walked out on stage in the dark for our first dance, I could feel my smile grow as the audience cheered, I felt my brain shut off and my feet just take off the stage lights came on, I felt my confidence rise as I made eye contact with my fellow dancers, I was surprised when the audience cheered for simple steps (they must have looked cool!), and I was affirmed when the audience cheered for parts of my choreography I was particularly proud of.
Through this example of reaction to dance as a witness and reaction to the observers as a dancer, I realized that empathy really goes both ways when it is strongest and most meaningful. Sure, we can have some empathy for things we witness in a video or read about, but I think the truest empathy is when two people are together and each one is witnessing the other and the process is ongoing and two-way. I think this can help explain why in global health we hear about or see videos of lots of horrible things far away, and do nothing, but we act when whoever is facing the problem is there with us in person.