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Thursday, October 11, 2007

on empathy

I’m wondering what would happen if we could—and would—regularly imagine the lives of people, real people in our country and in our world, who live lives beyond our own experience. What would happen to our public policy, and foreign policy, if we didn’t seemingly lack the ability to imagine lives?

It’s impossible, it seems, to be empathetic if you cannot imagine a reality beyond your own. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, partly because I’m reading Lisel Mueller’s collection of poems, Alive Together, which is filled with empathy, and partly because of the 50th anniversary of the integration of Little Rock Central High School a couple of weeks ago.

Over the week of Little Rock coverage on NPR, I sat in my car, driving to work and driving Stella to pre-school, listening to the speeches from the now-middle-aged Little Rock nine and what they went through half a century ago, and I just felt so sad. Only fifty years ago. That’s nothing. It’s a blink of an eye.

As I listened, and even after I turned off the radio, the image that I couldn’t shake was one that’s in the beginning pages of Melba Pattillo Beals’ memoir Warriors Don’t Cry, which describes her experiences as one of the Little Rock nine. That photo is one that most Americans should recognize: the young Elizabeth Eckford walking down the street, a mob of white women— mothers—directly behind her, screaming and angry.

I understand that hate comes from fear. I understand that difference seems scary to people. But what I cannot wrap my mind around is this: white mothers, who have their own children, being able to hate those kids because they were black. How could they lack such imagination? How could they not have imagined what those kids were going through? How could they not have imagined the nine’s own mothers, sitting at home, wringing their hands, unable to protect their kids from all that hate?

I love my Stella so much that the thought of her having to live through something like that makes me physically sick. But my protectiveness doesn’t end with her. No child should have to experience that kind of hate, ever. No mother should have to know her child is living through that kind of hate, ever.

If we were more empathic, if we weren’t so wrapped up in our own lives, would this kind of thing still happen?

I had never read Lisel Mueller’s poetry. She won the Pulitzer in 1997, and her poetry has been published since the late ‘50s, but she was new to me. (I’m forever catching up, and always feel behind my peers in terms of reading…Alas. I'm working on it.)

She’s very talented—obviously—but the thing that struck me more than anything in her poems was her empathy, her ability to see the real people living real lives beyond her own.

From “Captivity” (about Patty Hearst)

In the beginning we followed her story
as we used to follow
the girl in the fairy tale.
Pity and fear. The decent girl
cast out to be cruelly tested
in the dark forest. Sentimental,
we swore she would never falter.

So when she started turning
into her dark sister,
we felt confused, betrayed.
More and more we heard
Tania’s harder tones
usurping her soft voice.
Patty was driven underground.

She turned into Tania and we turned against her;
sooner or later the victim gets blamed.
Perhaps by then we were bored
with the innocent of the story.


From “An Unanswered Question”

If I had been the lone survivor
of my Tasmanian tribe,
the only person in the world
to speak my language
(as she was),

if I had known and believed that
(for who can believe
in an exhaustible language),
and I had been shipped
to London, to be exhibited
in a cage (as she was)
to entertain the curious
who go to museums and zoos...


I wonder: if we tried to write (and think) beginning with “if I had been…” would we be able to better access our empathy? Could we make a difference?

6 comments:

coarse gold girl said...

Fascinating post. Very thought provoking. Not only does it remind me that I need to rise to the challenge of imagining the lives others are living that are beyond my experience but it highlights a common complaint I find I often have as a foreign mother. If these local moms wouldn't want a bunch of strangers pointing at their children and running up and asking them to speak Japanese, why do they seem offended when I express distaste for it being done to my children? If it would offend them to have someone tell them that their Japanese is surprisingly good, why don't they get it that it offends my daughters to be told that they speak their native language amazingly well?
It is so easy to get caught up on this side of the thing--why don't they understand ME? But it is so much more vital for me to get to that other side and try to understand their lives that are outside my own experience.
Thanks for the reminder.

kyra said...

i love this. "if i had been..." what a beautiful stepping off point.

Ines said...

Kate, I love this post. The words are so clear, so compelling. I often also feel like you about "catching up" with magnificent writers. However, I sort of felt that, in my case, it was because I didn't grow up in this country. I guess, this is common. Thank you for your recommendations. I have gotten other books of poetry that you recommended in the past and I now love to read poetry (you see I thought I would only enjoy reading poetry in Spanish :) (this myth has been dispelled....) warmly...ia

**camera shy momma** said...

i currently live in the south. sometimes i see children who are still being raised in hatred. old texan towns don't give up too easily. i see the hatred grow into who they are. i see it when they are 2, 6, 10 years old. and the words that spew from their mouth make me want to vomit and shake both them and their parents. they are bred and born and swim constantly in hatred. so they grow up thinking this is normal. that everyone else is not seeing clearly. it's shocking to me, to this day, that this type of hatred exists and i want to sit down with the parents and talk with them. but they, too, were raised in the hatred and see no wrong in it. i talk and my words fall on deaf ears. it's so very sad, the cycle they are perpetuating throughout their lives, and i wonder how can such humans feel nothing in their heart, feel no recognition of themselves in others. when here i am contantly seeing my reflection in the eyes of others. it feels like two separate worlds.

thanks for your thought provoking post

katy said...

Wow Kate! This is the first time I have been to your web site and this post on Empathy has hit me like a bag of ROCKS! I have felt those same emotions when I see that picture of Elizabeth Eckford, all dressed up in her best school clothes, looking like a sweet little dolly, being HATED by those ignorant parents. How could anyone hate an innocent child?

Amanda said...

I used that photo for a visual analysis a few weeks ago, and some of my students actually believed that the white women in the photo were marching WITH Elizabeth Eckford. I mean, it was a cultural thing - they didn't know the history yet and don't have that sense of the racial tension between blacks and whites in America that Americans are taught about - but it floored me - I mean, how can you not see the hatred? - then again, we were just starting to grapple with the concept of analysis. Still. It wasn't pretty.