In an interview with Stephen Colbert last year, writer George Saunders was discussing his book "Lincoln in the Bardo" (which is exceptional, by the way) and in that conversation, he happened to so succinctly and beautifully state, "Empathy is a superpower." Those words have since been jotted down on a post-it and stuck on our desk since - a reminder that we all can be super heroes if we remember and attune ourselves to compassion and kindness.
On this EXTREMELY salient topic of empathy and tenderness, we're thrilled to share the latest installment of SHAPERS with U.K. illustrator "Drawings of Dogs" (aka Henry James Garrett). We first spotted Henry's incredibly witty, clever, super smart, "politically punchy while somehow managing to remain playful" illustrations on Instagram and are beyond happy he took some time out of his work to answer our Q's with his A's. (By the way, Henry, major gratitude from us to you and your U.K. compatriots for your recent 250.000-strong march of resistance!)
LILY SPINDLE: The writer Sue Monk Kidd once said "Empathy is the most mysterious transaction that the human soul can have, and it's accessible to all of us, but we have to give ourselves the opportunity..." Do you feel this is true? Is empathy accessible to all of us? And, if not, is its inaccessibility, denial, or nonexistence what's plaguing and poisoning the world at the moment?
So, I’m actually writing a book about empathy and kindness at the moment (there will, of course, be lots of drawings to accompany the text). This is a great question.
Empathy is accessible to all of us. In fact, because empathy evolved quite a while back, it’s not just humans that can empathise; some of our cousins in the animal kingdom can too. Rats feel other rats’ fear for example. We all have the capacity for empathy – the capacity to share in one another’s pains – but the problem is that we can accidentally turn our empathy off.
The big problem right now (if I can grossly oversimplify for a moment) is that people are switching off their empathy toward certain groups because they have false beliefs about those groups, or they don’t know enough about those groups.
I’m not saying it’s an accident. It’s not. Lying about some group – like migrants – and stoking or redirecting hate toward them is a good distraction technique. And that’s what’s going on at the moment. But every time in human history we’ve turned our empathy off towards a specific group, atrocities have inevitably followed.
But there’s a really easy solution. You’ve got to listen to people and listen to them directly. Let people tell their own stories (don’t get Scarlett Johansen to play them in a movie). When we hear peoples’ stories directly, we will always empathise with their suffering.
LILY SPINDLE: While you draw all sorts of animals, lending personalities and voices to them (all of which seem completely apt, by the way!), you began your illustration venture by drawing dogs (hence your moniker and ongoing project). And your pup, Billie, is your constant companion, yes? What is it about dogs that you so distinctly and intimately connect with? As dog lovers ourselves, we can think of a zillion reasons, but of course always love hearing everyone's own perspectives as to why dogs are SO AMAZING.
I met Billie when I was 15. I was unwell and off school for a year and so my parents finally let me get a dog. They hoped she’d keep me company and keep me engaged in the world and she did. I love Billie so much and loving someone unconditionally and feeling completely at peace in their company is one of the best, most healthy, feelings in the world I think.
Dogs are fascinating to me from an artistic perspective because they reflect our humanity in really interesting ways. Here’s an animal that we bred, more than any other, specifically to function as an extra companion. So, dogs show what we want in a friend. And guess what: they’re super needy but super loyal.
LILY SPINDLE: If you could have lunch with one famous person, living or dead, who would it be? What would you order?
Hmmm, well I’ve made a super close friend through Instagram who I’ve yet to meet, so I’d use the dream lunch to do that. She’s my first proper internet friend and she also happens to be famous. So, I’d pick Alexandra Billings. I can’t remember how we first internet-met but she’s an incredible activist and actress, and Kitty (my partner) and I would be soooooooo happy if we could have lunch with her and her wife (we’re currently separated by the Atlantic ocean).
I would order so much vegan pizza, and burgers, and chips, and it would be delicious and wonderful.
LILY SPINDLE: Are you a morning person or a night owl?
I’m a morning person. I go to bed at 11 every night and get cross/anxious if I can’t for some reason. Sleep is super important for my health – but then it’s also something that it’s easy to turn into a worry.
I wake up sleepy but if I’m going to get anything good done workwise it will be in the morning.
I also love coffee, and love breakfast. If Kitty and I can have avocado toast outside on a sunny but cold morning, I will be incredibly happy all day.
LILY SPINDLE: What's currently on your bedside table?
We sleep on a mattress on the floor haha.
I always have a Harry Potter book to hand. I read it to Kitty if she can’t sleep.I also keep a book nearby so that if I have an idea in the night, I can write it down and go back to sleep.
LILY SPINDLE: As a thoughtful, evolved, kind-hearted, caring artist, what's your key piece of advice to the nurturers, empaths, and do-gooders of the world?
Haha, if I answer this it sounds like I accept that beautiful compliment as true. I’m ok, but I’ve got a lot of room to be better.
But if I could give one piece advice to a group of people who are trying to be better, it would be this: there is no such thing as too much empathy, there is no one who can feel pain whose pain you shouldn’t empathise with. If you want to make sure that you do empathise with everyone, you need to be humble, reflective and willing to learn by listening. Your empathy can be exercised, and strengthened, like a muscle; you just have to find people who have lives very different from your own and listen to their stories (but don’t angrily demand that they tell their stories, or listen to someone else who claims to be able to speak for them).
PS - You can find and purchase Henry James Garrett's work by going to THIS LINK