• T. Kearny Vertner, III

The Power of Empathy

"Before you disagree with somebody, walk a mile in their shoes..."

"... and if you still disagree with them, you're a mile away. And you have their shoes."


Countless divisions have plagued our country since its roots. Indigenous versus colonists. Black versus white. Male versus female. Republican versus Democrat. Pro-choice versus pro-life. Conservative versus liberal. While I don't personally subscribe to hyperbolic dichotomies, it's foolish to ignore them, since so many people pivot their decision-making based on them. Recent news would suggest that the protests and resulting tension are pure novelty born on the back of a few high-profile killings, but if we're honest with ourselves, this just our nation's painful history rhyming again. For some, this latest surge represents a desperate call to arms against injustice, while for others, they see it as a short-sighted and childish cry for attention.


I see it as a lack of empathy.


The Case for Empathy


Merriam-Webster defines empathy as:


"1 :the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner."


Like many, my feelings on the protests are mixed. I can empathize with the vast majority of the police who are underpaid, poorly trained and asked to perform a multitude of social functions that would challenge most specialists. I can also empathize with people who see consistent police overreach with a lack of true and fair accountability made worse by its disproportionate impact on communities of color. 


As a white male, I have never experienced horror when being approached by a police officer. I have never felt the degradation of police detention or known the terror of having their gun to my face, even when engaged in questionable activities. The closest I can come is when I listen and empathize with the experiences of my brothers and sisters who have, yet such concerns shouldn't matter only because people close to me have experienced them.

Paraphrasing a good friend of mine, Steven Specht, the division line seems to be between those who cannot yet see beyond their self-interests - including their personal relationships - and those who can empathize with others. For someone to care, it shouldn't require someone "to have a black friend who has been arrested for the same crime I walked away from with a friendly laugh and warning." We shouldn't need to ask ourselves, "what if it was my child or spouse?" Despite that, many times, each of us fail to empathize with the challenges of others.


Empathy is crucial to understanding their struggles and helping us all work together to find a way forward. I endeavor not to fault those who have not yet learned empathy. I fundamentally believe that empathy must be learned, but it cannot necessarily be taught.

Learning Empathy with Mark Twain


One of my favorite passages from Mark Twain lay in his unpublished work, "A Family Sketch." Written shortly after the 1896 death of his oldest daughter, Susy, it's a delightful autobiographical insight into his life.

“When I was a boy my mother pleaded for the fishes and the birds and tried to persuade me to spare them, but I went on taking their lives unmoved, until at last I shot a bird that sat in a high tree, with its head tilted back, and pouring out a grateful song from an innocent heart. It toppled from its perch and came floating down limp and forlorn and fell at my feet, its song quenched and its unoffending life extinguished. I had not needed that harmless creature, I had destroyed it wantonly, and I felt all that an assassin feels, of grief and remorse when his deed comes home to him and he wishes he could undo it and have his hands and his soul clean again from accusing blood. One department of my education, theretofore long and diligently and fruitlessly labored upon, was closed by that single application of an outside and unsalaried influence, and could take down its sign and put away its books and its admonitions permanently.”

This powerful moment speaks to both me as a parent and me as a child. Who doesn't recall the numerous times our parents ineffectively grappled with teaching us values like empathy? While we can't always turn to a single pivotal moment like Twain did, often we can see that it was something learned from personal experience. Our parents tedious lessons exist only as a reference to be acknowledged after arriving at our own same conclusion. As I grew older and had my own children, I've watched the same scenario play out.


As a result, my goal is often not to explicitly teach empathy, but to try and encourage my children to face ethical and moral dilemmas and feel comfortable bouncing their ideas off of me. Both simpler and loftier than teaching my children empathy, I hope to offer them the opportunity to learn it.


Conclusion


While I cannot pretend to have a magic salve to heal the pain and frustration of many, as we all devolve into fiercely passionate debates in the streets and social media, I urge everyone to offer each other some measure of dignity and patience. While I have little tolerance for the violent anarchist rioter or the zealously trigger-happy authoritarian police officer, the vast majority of protestors and law enforcement officials are neither of these caricatures. People on both sides of this debate are still learning empathy while showing their bravery. Despite the challenges this country has wrestled with since its beginning, I am deeply encouraged that we continue to have these debates. A lesser country's citizens would conceal their painful past and shy away from the chance to employ - and learn - empathy for each other.



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© 2020 by T. Kearny Vertner, III. These are my views and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the Department of Defense or its components. Proudly created with Wix.com