What do we think when we pass a homeless person begging for money? Do you judge and ignore, or does their situation sink in as you are on your way to a meeting or a museum?
How do we feel when a person of another race is a victim of a hate crime, or killed by a police officer for unjustifiable reasons – and does it sink in if you’re white?
What is the meaning of a woman being discriminated against trying to get a job, or raped as she serves in the military, and does it sink in if you’re a man?
Empathy is one of humanity’s highest aspirations. Truly, it is the fount of kinship; it is the better part of our mottled souls; it is the mother of kindness; it is the foundry of care; it is the wellspring of goodness; it is the origin of forgiveness.
“With compassion, we see benevolently our own human condition and the condition of our fellow beings. We drop prejudice. We withhold judgment.”
I just finished watching the evocative movie On the Basis of Sex, which is the story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the inimitable Supreme Court Justice. She is an amazing person; truly the best the Supreme Court has, and worthy of great respect.
As it ended, my wife began to slowly clap – not a standing ovation kind of moment, but a quiet recognition of the momentous deeds accomplished by the diminutive woman with the big brain. Thank God she is still alive – the most important reason being she is protecting the Supreme Court from another appointment by that scoundrel Donald Trump. A tear was indeed streaming down my cheek.
I am not, nor have I ever been, a woman 🙂 I am not gay; transgender; African-American; poor; ugly; obese; stupid; and the challenges of childhood were not that far out of the norm.
Yet, I shed a tear and felt a deep sense of reverence for this incredible human being, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Empathy was how that happened.
I recognized the high values she exemplified so passionately. Not in an abstract way, but because I know what it is like to suffer. I have wept, too. Roadblocks have been put in front of me. I get some small measure of what being a downtrodden and discarded person can feel like at times. I see myself in her.
This is the reason theater resonates with us so deeply; why song lyrics tug at our heartstrings; why we feel so sad when we see the abused and abandoned dogs on television. We can relate.
Here are some lyrics to a fantastic song written by Eric Shrody:
We’ve all seen the man at the liquor store beggin’ for your change
The hair on his face is dirty, dreadlocked and full of mange
He asks the man for what he could spare with shame in his eyes
“Get a job, you fucking slob” is all he replies.
That song is a virtual lesson in empathy, and the compelling video can be seen here.
Human beings can feel aggression and envy and shame, but we also can experience the bright light of empathy; the gift of compassion; the wonder of magnanimity.”Hate is everywhere because it is a part of human nature…the worst part. But it is also part of human nature to oppose it vigorously – with every fiber of our being. When people do that, they express what is best in us,” the Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel maintained.
Empathy is the source of my resonance with the good fight that Ginsburg put up all throughout her life. She was a woman; she was a working mother; she was Jewish. Life wasn’t easy for her, probably ever. Even in her 80s, she keeps up with the Court’s important docket. She is truly a credit to humanity, and the movie really hit that home. Empathy drew that connection quickly in my brain. Neurotransmitters went to work; electrical impulses raced through my neurons. A feeling touched me.
I asked the question at the beginning of this piece: And does that sink in if you’re [not]?
Most people who were not abused or neglected or drug-addicted growing up can feel tender emotion in their own case; I know I feel a uniquely profound feeling when I see how Jews were treated in the Holocaust. That is merely Level 1 of being human.
It’s very easy for human beings to think in an egocentric way – “I’m what is important.” It’s far too likely that we each are prejudiced in favor of our own kind; our tribe, as it were. Many of the biases we have against others were simply learned as one grew up. I’ve heard folks say “That nigger cut me off on the interstate!”, or “What a bitch that woman is!”, or “That faggot was staring at me in the creepiest way.” In this country – the one that killed most American Indians, enslaved Africans, and kept women in a grossly subservient position for most of its short existence – we all need to face up.
“Short of genius, a rich man cannot imagine poverty.”
It is inarguable that in this society, anyone in their right mind, right before birth, would prefer to be born a white, Christian, intelligent, well-off, well-cared-for, straight, comely, healthy, capitalistic male. Hands down.
Here is the critical hook in the song What It’s Like:
God forbid you ever had to walk a mile in his shoes
Cause then you really might know what it’s like to sing the blues
Then you really might know what it’s like,
Then you really might know what it’s like…
“There but for the grace of God go I” is a trenchant aphorism meant to encourage a deep sense of empathy and gratitude. Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, and let it sink in what it is like for them. Don’t judge; don’t fall victim to the bias that causes you to think you’re better, smarter, or more deserving than the person you’re looking at.
Empathy is a critical factor in close social relationships, self-restraint, and community. It is even more important in an era when people bully each other on the Internet, when the President of the United States engages in a ceaseless string of puerile affronts to decency and honor, and when social media tears at the fabric of society.
“People without social emotions like empathy are not objective decision-makers. They are sociopaths who sometimes end up on death row.”
When I look at that picture of my father and me, I feel a very melancholy impulse well up in me. He was so vigorous and strong, it seemed, when I was growing up. He would sweat, doing difficult yardwork in the hot sun. He would drive us for 8 hours to Arizona for vacations. Once he took a shovel and a burlap sack and dug up a barrel cactus along Highway 10 in the desert while we waited in the car because he felt we needed a cactus for our house. He collected everything; he read me bedtime stories and chastised me for leaving my toys outside over night; he was a Sheriff’s Deputy (Reserve); he was a talented physician; he spent time with me in eighth and ninth grade struggling with my algebra. In 1990, I saw him save a woman’s life by doing CPR when she died right in front of us at a restaurant. In that picture, I see a frail man, in decline, having burned through most of the candle already. His suffering in this life was always in the background, and at times, poignant. I have never cried harder than when I beheld his mental or physical state, or reflected upon his passing. Eighty-three years is a long time on this planet, but I guess I wanted my dad to look up to forever. Time is merciless and had no such idea in store for him, or me.
Iyanla Van Sant says that “A man is who his mom raised him to be.” I would also note that one theory of how wisdom develops in the young is: suffering + resilience. I think those are both true; my mom raised me to be the kind of man who would feel deep empathy, respect, and admiration for Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She once said: “You, more than anyone else I know, really try to live your values.” I’m honored by that, and I think that for better or for worse, whatever compassion, magnanimity, kindness, and wisdom I can claim today has something to do with her. I have at times disappointed her by charting my own path, but she primarily raised me and has truly shown me the dictim that “good fortune is best shared.”
Empathy is a feeling-based phenomenon; we feel more, we access deeper compassion, if we see some of ourselves in the other. Social psychologists David G. Meyers andEmpathy, being particular, produces partiality – toward a single child or family or pet. Moral principles, being universal, produce concern for unseen others as well.” I would, however, just shape that a little bit, in the following way: David Hume and Adam Smith were probably not far off when they theorized that sentimentality and feelings are the better part of humanity. “When was morality ever as simple a rule book?,” it has wisely been asked.
Picture a small, boxy black and white television circa 1964. It is being watched by a lone white woman, a housewife, dressed nicely – all prim and proper, like a good Christian woman should. She has, in the past, wondered why those “coloreds”, as everyone calls them, have to make such a big deal out of this whole “civil rights thing.” She just didn’t really get why they need to rock the boat and stir up so much trouble. Look how far they’ve come, after all!
The television depicts grainy images of police water cannons splaying a woman out on the wet pavement like a fish out of water; she witnesses ferocious German Shepherds frightening the wits out of a poor young man; she imagines what a baton to the back of the head feels like as she hears an audible “thud” picked up by the camera mic. She perceives a viceral rage in the eyes of one officer, and a Naziesque detachment and dehumanization on the face of another. These men and women are just protesting, asking to be treated equally; they aren’t miscreants worthy of Alabama’s brutality. She recalls Rosa Parks as being a fairly respectable and courageous young woman. Where is the America she remembers from listening to the radio while growing up, or that her would grandmother so highly of?
Her mind slowly drifts to her own past, as though a guitar softly begins to play in her soul… Something within her connects it all, at long last. She opens her mind up to the fact that she has been a victim of social convention, for all along the message of Jesus Christ was right in front of her. Love your neighbor as you would love yourself. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Through empathy, a tear streams down her cheek. She wipes it, lest her husband look up from his newspaper to see her crying, causing a brouhaha. But she feels it. She gets what it must be like to be second class citizens, to be shut out, to be beaten. Her emotions, from deep inside, connected up with “that poor girl on the television.” Somehow, she knew that these people are Americans; they don’t deserve this maltreatment, she acknowledged. Something is wrong here, she whispers to herself.
She doesn’t go and join the ACLU straightaway; she still believes for years to come that blacks have come a long way in a short time – that they should just “take it more slowly.” But she was forever changed the day her heart connected the love she knows Jesus feels for her and the love he must therefore also have for those sundry others out there in the world. Perhaps she was pursued by grace, as Jim Klobuchar put it; she just perceived those coloreds as better than inferior on that pivotal day. She knew she was lucky to have been born the person she was, to have been raised by her mom and dad. She truly knew what her pastor was talking about when he shared the parable of the stranger. She, too, is a stranger. Perhaps we all are strangers, she acknowledged. Ω
“Could a greater miracle occur than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”