“Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough.”
- To Kill a Mockingbird
I’ve been asked to explain empathy before and it was more difficult than I expected even though—or because—I can feel it so intensely. Empathy is something I have taken for granted. It comes and goes as it pleases. It is a hallmark of the human condition, and yet, it cannot be a realistic expectation of humanity. Sometimes I find myself unwittingly slipping into another’s shoes, and sometimes it is completely impossible. I feel no sympathy or empathy, just contempt. Disbelief, apathy.
More and more, life has developed into a quest to master Empathy. To understand that every human is an optical illusion and not to lose myself in the process of becoming another person. It is a slippery slope either way. There is no action without some kind of judgment—that is, ultimately, we have to know how to treat another person; but this is different from judging unfairly. I have started so many sentences with “Why can’t you be more….” and I try to remind myself to find satisfaction in “I can trust you to be who you are.” When you strip away all your fantasies, expectations, and truths you’d rather be false, it gives you a clearer view of someone else’s face. Who you are faced with. Not the reflection of yourself in their eyes, but the matte reality.
Sometimes empathy is simply impossible without a shared experience. There are some visceral processes that cannot be imagined. Unless we believe in reincarnation and a past life’s experience leaking into our own—there are some feelings that cannot be explained. Heartbreak. Grief. Depression. The trauma of violence. As we age, it is possible that we experience these emotions directly and our ability to truly empathize increases dramatically. But, as I remember myself exasperatedly throwing the words, “why can’t you understand?!” at someone—I wonder, do I actually want you to understand? Would I truly wish this upon you?
What cruel and contemptuous person would I be to wish heartbreak upon another soul? How far will I go to make them understand, to empathize, to feel the same unshakeable despair? How direly will I refuse to empathize in return? The better person in me will say “I will settle for sympathy.” The wiser person in me will understand that sympathy is more than enough.
Perhaps empathy is not a linear process. We oscillate from novice to professional. We find ourselves sometimes stepping into another’s shoes, experiencing the weight of their life and the logic behind the reasoning. This is dangerous in its own way, when our autonomy becomes threatened and we mold ourselves into someone else’s identity. At other times, we are perhaps repulsed by another human being, completely oblivious to complexity of their humanity. Yet, I have learned that while empathy is a quality that cannot be actively learned or demanded, it can be chosen nevertheless. It is elusive and visceral; it is measured more in effort than accuracy. In the process of aspiring towards empathy, perhaps that is where we truly discover sympathy, compassion, and forgiveness.
Moving on from the personal, empathy is crucial in foreign policy and bridging ethnic and cultural differences. One of the most difficult dialogues to handle that inevitably resulted from the Boston Marathon bombings was, “Yes America, now perhaps you can understand what occurs on a daily basis around the world.” Perhaps we, as a country, do understand more. Perhaps we are more willing to be accountable for the fact that we are responsible for a great deal of the violence around the world. But this shared experience comes at a price, and no one in good conscious can ask anyone to pay it willingly—it is forced upon us, and this is a part of the violence.
Since the price has been paid by innocents, I wonder how we will react to the violence and tragedy we have been subject to. Do we focus our efforts on retribution and condemnation, fueling our conformation biases? Do we strike, like many congress members already have, to twist this event into a distrust of immigrants, foreigners, and to further fuel Islamophobia? Or do we take this opportunity to absorb the pains of empathy, to understand the opportunity we have for compassion.
I ask myself these questions every day as I ponder how compassion is a choice, and, that in reeling from my wounds, I have the power to strike and hurt. It is probably true that no man is an island, but the crossroads we face alone are parallel to the choices we make as a whole.