This is the first in an occasional series about empathy that will be posted here throughout the first half of 2021. Several guest poets and writers will add their ideas on empathy as the series unfolds.
I have a distinct memory of my mother teaching me empathy without saying the word. I was probably about ten years old and we were watching the news on television. We saw the aftermath of a shooting in downtown Los Angeles. We were shown several chalk outlines, police lights flashing, body bags. I don’t recall how many people were killed but I remember saying a number. Something like “Man. Six people killed.” My mother reminded me that far more than six people might be destroyed. She said “Think of throwing pebbles into a creek. There’s a splash and then a widening circle for every pebble.” She didn’t have to continue for me to get it. Behind every death in this shooting we’d seen reported, was a weeping crowd of mothers, fathers, children, grandparents, friends, co-workers. “Look beyond what you see,” was part of her lesson too.
I don’t recall ever being taught about empathy in school. I don’t recall hearing a sermon about empathy. But I know we need it more than ever today. Empathy is the bridge that connects us to other people. Empathy enables us to see the world from another’s perspective. Perhaps it even allows us to feel the world from another’s perspective. If we take it seriously, empathy can liberate us to act in the world on behalf of others. Meaningful other-centered action begins with empathy. Our world and country need it badly.
One of the difficulties with empathy is that it requires, what feels like, a dangerous step away from one’s self. To see the world from another’s perspective, I have to step away from how I see the world, at least for a moment. I have to imagine there is another view here and then be willing to step from myself and my needs, to consider the world through another’s eyes. Once we can step away from ourselves and see the world from a different perspective, we might be able to feel an echo of what another feels. If we actually see and feel something from the other’s place, we can begin to act for others in the world.
Fiction can teach us very effectively about empathy. When you read another’s story you don’t just look for yourself. You learn the other. You listen to the old man’s prayers in Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. You begin to care about Detroit Red, in The Autobiography of Malcolm X. You feel deeply tied to the young boy in Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing. Fiction might be the place where many of us first practice empathy. It kind of takes us over without our knowledge. It is, of course, harder in real life.
When Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida in 2012, and when his killer was found “not guilty,” my students here in Washington, D.C. taught me valuable lessons about empathy. For ten years, I had been reading essays by students in the predominantly Black high school where I taught. They had been teaching me about being followed in stores, seeing white people cross the street to avoid them, watching people clutch their purses tighter on the Metro when one of my Black high school students was close. I knew, from reading their writing, and from listening to them, that they experienced the world in ways I could not know firsthand.
After the verdict that acquitted the man who killed Trayvon Martin, we had a few days of discussion and writing about their experiences, their sense of their city, their country, the world. Did they feel they belonged? Did they feel safe? Did they feel the laws of our country were here to protect them? They wrote and talked over those questions, and many more. My only wisdom was to be quiet and listen them.
As I look around the United States today, nearly ten years after Trayvon Martin was killed, it’s clear that many of us do not know how others experience the world. It’s clear that some of us are so frightened of losing our place that we refuse to see how our laws and culture affect others.
We might ask ourselves why it matters that people starve in Yemen. What difference does it make to me if LGBTIQ refugees suffer in United Nations camps? Why should I care about elders in the United States suffering from food insecurity? Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. understood a thread of this when he wrote, in “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
In some ways, the need for empathy is stronger among those who have majority status. When one is white, straight, economically comfortable, it can be easy to not see, feel, or act on behalf of those who are not white, straight, or economically comfortable. It is often a jarring loss can push us outside our own tidy vision. But we shouldn’t need a life-shattering episode in our own lives to see the fragility of life for so many around us. Seeing others, at some level feeling for them, then acting on their behalf, this is empathy. This is what we desperately need today.
— The photograph at the top of this blog post was taken in 2020 by the author. It is Boulder Bridge in Rock Creek Park, Washington, D.C.