Monday, March 18, 2013

In Search of Empathy

So everyone is sharing this piece by Roxane Gay today. She makes beautiful points while tying together very troubling current events in a relevant way. And I agree with her... until the end and her remarks regarding empathy, what it is, and where it comes from.

"I try to imagine what would happen, if that someone, sixteen, at a party, were a boy. And then I hate myself, because that’s not empathy, not at all. We can’t use clever word play to empathize our way out of this mess. We cannot wish something terrible onto anyone to try and even the score. I am not sure what empathy is or how we wield it properly but I am certain it’s not that way."

I agree that, in an ideal world, people shouldn't have to imagine their own child as the victim of a terrible crime in order to empathize. But the world isn't perfect and breaking down centuries of social norms, biases, and prejudices that even the emotionally aware often can't recognize will sometimes require a jarring comparison.

Due to the vast and varied amount of human suffering, we label and categorize experiences so we can decide which issues to care about, choosing ones that have affected us the most, that we identify with the most. This is unavoidable in some ways; otherwise we'd never get anything done because we'd all want to kill ourselves. Still, we all have issues that hit close to home - whether we are or know a victim of rape or we are or know someone with stomach cancer, an issue that touches our individual experience becomes a priority. We choose what we can't not choose because those issues awaken raw emotions in our numbed spirits. Can we do better than this? Yes. Can we expect or demand that empathy only come from a sufficiently virtuous place? I don't think we can. Not yet, at least. I'm certain we'll fail to reach that high a bar. I hope we can someday.

Here's what I know about empathy. Empathy is recognizing yourself in another person. It is feeling compassion for another person's suffering despite differences in race, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, parental status, abilities, and so on. Considering how much value our culture places on individualism and competition, and how little value we assign to recognizing and identifying our own feelings, it's amazing any of us develop empathy at all.

I also know that empathy doesn't come naturally to every person. Empathic ability comes in different forms. Some people feel it right away, some people read verbal or nonverbal cues, some both, some neither. Regardless, empathy is both an intellectual and emotional skill which must be modeled by mentors, politicians, parents, aunts and uncles, neighbors, and teachers. We must nurture and encourage compassion in the next generation. This requires a lot of hard work. The focus of Buddhist meditation asks practitioners to develop compassion. Since one can spend a lifetime meditating, this practice illustrates just how difficult it is to foster a deep sense of compassion. To be able to look at another person and not see differences, not see "the other", but rather see our shared humanity.

Here is what I also know. We've gotten ourselves into one fucking ugly mess. And it's entirely possible that the only way out is to trudge back through that ugly mess. Becoming a more compassionate culture will take decades of tirelessly facing our own ugliness until one day we won't need to imagine acts of violence or misfortune upon our loved ones in order to empathize. Until one day we as a culture can empathize with human suffering regardless of our individual differences.
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