In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch tells his young daughter, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
I first read that line at 15. I have read it many times since. Each time I read Scout’s coming-of-age story, where she realizes that all is not as it seems and that life is a lot more complicated than good against evil, I’m reminded of the importance of empathy. The ability to feel and express empathy enables us to effectively relate to our fellow human beings. We expect children to learn the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” We teach this, not just because it is a way to keep their behavior in check, but to help them understand that other people feel pain as well. A couple weeks ago we had our four-year-old son’s best buddy and family over for dinner. At one point the two boys were gleefully running away from our six-year-old daughter, causing dramatic tears because they didn’t want to play with her. The next week this same friend and another friend at school did the same thing to our son during the school day. Feelings were hurt, discipline was enforced, and the boys are back to being best of friends. As apologetic as our son’s pre-school teacher was, we were semi-thankful for the experience. It gave us the opportunity to talk to our son about experiencing the same hurt that he had inflicted on his older sister just days earlier. He learned an important lesson about empathy.
I’ve always tried to keep the vast majority of my political and social views private because 1) I hate conflict and 2) I don’t feel it is my place to tell people what to think. I am the stereotypical INFJ and I’ve come to accept that about myself. But because I am a typical INFJ I also have a significant amount of empathy, which sometimes makes it really hard for me to keep my mouth shut because even when I agree with someone I want them to try to see things from another’s perspective. Life experience has taught me that most issues are incredibly complicated and I try to listen to what others have to say. I have a lot of friends, conservative and liberal, with whom I share opposing views, but when we share those opposing views, I try to see why we are on opposing sides before I criticize those views. Do they have personal experience with the issue? Do they have family members with personal experience? Have they lived in other places and seen things that I haven’t and therefore their life experience is broader than mine? I don’t just want to know what they believe, I want to know WHY they believe it.
Earlier this semester my Pre-AP students read Richard Wright’s memoir Black Boy. It was my first time reading the book and as I prepared to teach the memoir I initially struggled with the idea that I had to teach the text. Wright’s life growing up in the deep South at the turn of the 20th century was incredibly difficult and even at a young age the experiences he had were colorful, to say the least. But the further I got into the book, my attitude shifted from “I have to teach this?” to “I HAVE to teach this!” Why? I teach a fantastic group of mostly white students and I knew that reading Wright’s memoir would be eye opening for them, and it was. It led to deep discussions about where our country was 100 years ago and where we are today. And I hope and pray that it helped them gain a greater understanding of the struggles their non-white peers are still facing around the country and the deeply rooted cultural beliefs behind that struggle. It opens up conversation. Knowing where someone comes from allows an individual to honestly and respectfully critique another’s opposing view. A person can say “I get where you’re coming from but this is why I believe that you are wrong. Is there some kind of middle ground we can come to so that we can work together to both create positive change?”
Failure to practice empathy doesn’t just lead to discord, it leads to societal dysfunction. My seniors are in their last days studying Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. While my favorite focus when teaching Frankenstein is on the role of modern science and its relation to the novel, we spent a spirited class period discussing Victor’s character. My personal view of Victor has evolved from villain to a more middle of the road anti-hero, which allows me to still see him as a seriously flawed man. He creates a monster and then deserts it because his creation disgusts and frightens him. He leaves his creation without any kind of mentor, any kind of parent figure to help him figure out the world into which Victor dropped him. Everyone the monster meets fears and hates him and he grows to hate mankind because of the treatment he receives. When he tells his creator all of this and then requests that Victor create a companion for him, Victor initially refuses and then eventually destroys his female creation before he can bring her to life. This destroys the monster’s one hope of having a companion. Victor lacks empathy for his creation and as a result loses his best friend, his wife, and his father to the monster’s vengeance. His life and the lives of all of his loved ones are destroyed because he fails to see things from his creation’s point-of-view.
And that is what is happening to our country. We are watching our government approach the cliff, the point of no return, and we are all asking what happened. You know what happened? We the people finally realized what we should have realized a long time ago. Somewhere along the way, the men and women who went into politics with good intentions and the desire to change the world forgot who they were serving. They forgot to empathize with those they serve and see them as human beings and instead started seeing them as a vote, a number. They stopped seeing each other as human beings and started seeing their political opponents as adversaries in an epic battle of “who is right and who is wrong.”
And we the people are the ones left on the battle field. We’re the ones left picking up the pieces while the political battle rages on around us. People are responding with frustration and anger and are thinking with their hearts, not their heads. I see memes making fun of Bernie Sanders supporters saying that they just want the government to pay for their stuff. However, most of my friends who are Bernie Sanders supporters are honestly doing just fine financially. They are intelligent, middle class millennials who have empathy for their fellow man. They are concerned about the people who are struggling and they see a candidate who appears genuine and who expresses empathy towards those who are struggling. I see the people supporting Donald Trump and, while I fail to see the allure, I understand their anger towards a Republican party establishment that has failed to do what it said it was going to do and a Democratic party that threatens to pass legislation that will take away some of the very rights that they hold dear.
And where does that leave us? It leaves us with front runners who are some of the worst candidates in US history. It leaves us with the ugliest campaign of my lifetime and we aren’t even to summer yet. It leaves us cheering on candidates who echo tyrannous voices of the past. It leaves us compromising the very ideals and values that have historically made America a leader in this world. As Padme Amidala says in Revenge of the Sith, “This is how liberty dies, with thunderous applause,” and I feel like I’ve been watching fiction become reality as I’ve watched the last couple debates.
I’m glad our Founding Father’s don’t have to watch the debacle of the Republican debates and the dismantling of the Constitution suggested by some. I’m glad that Harper Lee, the woman who taught me the power of literature in arousing empathy, no longer has to watch her country falling apart. But the world is watching. Our Founding Fathers (and Mothers) were far from perfect. They each had their own personal flaws and they disagreed with each other concerning the best course of action for our young country. They fought and hurled eloquent insults at each other and met each other on the dueling grounds of New Jersey. But they found some way to work together to form a Constitution and then they worked to find a way to make the American Experiment work.
Our country doesn’t have a flawless record. Far from it. But even in the darkest days of the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln empathized with the very people who had turned against him. He fought for the end of slavery while understanding that those states returning to the Union after the war needed to be welcomed back into the nation’s embrace. Blood had been shed. The price had been paid. It was time to be whole again.
Let’s start asking each other why so that we can figure out how to fix this. Maybe then we can stop this runaway train.