Saturday, February 6, 2016

Empathy and action: thoughts on old news.

Let me open these reflections with a story. During the horrifically devastating 2004 Tsunami I remember my sister and my mother having quite different reactions to the news. My sister was visiting home at that point (I believe it was near Christmas?) and she was glued to the computer, watching as the death toll rose, just stricken and horrified by the immensity of the tragedy. My mother took the little old Hungarian lady out to go grocery shopping. Both of them were a bit peeved at each other. My sister, because my mom wasn't paying attention and didn't seem to care about this massive tragedy, and my mom because she didn't see my sister's tearful observation as useful or helpful, whereas helping Mrs. Jakob, an elderly lady with no car, was both a necessity and a way in which she could actually lessen the need of the world. Before it sounds like I am slamming either of family members, let me clarify. If there is a villain in this story, it's me. I was also mildly peeved at my sister, but only because her using the only computer connected to dial up prevented me from AIMing with my friends. My sister is generous with her talents and her resources, my mother listens with knowledgeable concern to the affairs of the world. But at that moment my sister was empathizing, my mom was moving her feet, and they were both frustrated at each other for not responding to the tragedies and needs of the world in the same way.

The Peace Palace displays a French flag in flowers after the attacks
In the past few years I've been seeing a lot of similar conflict not in my household but in my newsfeed as people respond to the news in different ways. Because our world is much more connected now even than it was twelve years ago, and I can listen to the news from everywhere not just my hometown or home country, and this raises a lot of questions about what should be newsworthy. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris, the world, and as follows, the internet flamed with a gigantic flare of empathy and solidarity for the city of Paris. And immediately following rise was a criticism of that very empathy. Personally? I found this criticism for the show of support of Paris a bit grating. Because on the on the one hand it feels like ragging on people as they express and experience their grief. No one quotes numbers and figures to one whose brother just died in a car accident. From where I'm living now, Paris is my neighbor, a mere 2.5 hours by train. I've visited Paris three times in the last 14 months. My friends live there. For millions of Americans, Paris is the only place outside the US they've ever been, the easiest place for them to picture in Europe. Of course everyone responds with grief.

But on the other hand, the criticism had some truth to it, because when similar acts of violence happen in other parts of the world, there is nothing close to the empathetic cry of solidarity. Paris feels like my neighbor, because it is close geographically and culturally to me. I've never been to Syria. I've never seen a film set there. I've read portions of exactly one book set in Syria and it was about the conflict. When I hear about a bombing in Syria I don’t immediately respond with shock and rage because that’s what I expect from news about Syria. Which reminds me of the Black Lives Matter movement-- a voice in America calling out against an expectation of violence against blacks, a more casual look at police violence if it concerns people who aren’t white. And again, here we find people not seeing other people as their neighbors, not empathizing with their sorrow. Because of course both of these things are wrong. Jesus calls us to consider as our neighbor not people we feel close to, but everyone. We make people our neighbors by showing kindness to them, by seeing their struggles as if they were our own, and by caring for their needs.

There’s been a lot of recent criticism of politicians saying that they’re praying for families who have lost loved ones, but consistently voting against laws that (these critics believe) would make the use of guns safer in this country. In December, media of all varieties was abuzz with comparisons of politicians calling for action, versus those merely expressing condolence or only prayers. And while accusations got a little ugly in this case I think this example continues to bring up some interesting questions about empathy. People say, “when you pray, move your feet,” but I think that it applies not just to prayers but to our feelings as well. How much do I get upset about something in the news because I fear that the people around me don’t seem to care? Maybe if I care extra, maybe if I am really, really, really sad about a tragedy involving someone who seems marginalized maybe that will make it better?

I recently read the somewhat mediocre novel, Sarah’s Key, and in this book an American expat living in Paris learns about French collaboration in the Jewish deportation. Her fascination with this history, and particularly the story of a particular girl becomes and obsession. At various times in the story it becomes clear that this story of this child is more important to her than her marriage, her daughter, her job, and it seems at the same time somehow noble and also unhinged. She wants to apologize, she’s sorry it happened, she’s sorry she didn’t know, she feels personally responsible somehow, if nothing else, for not knowing. This journalist character is full of feeling but none of it is productive.

To contrast with this fictional journalist’s emotional fixation, the Resistance Museum in Amsterdam tells the evocative stories of the Dutch under the Nazi occupation. One temporary exhibit was about the “hunger winter” and the children sent away from their families in city. They were sent to households in the country not because of air raids, like in London, but because The Netherlands is a small densely populated country and everyone was in such danger of starvation at the end of the war. The exhibit followed the stories of eight children, told in text and video by the now aging men and women themselves. You could watch videos of an old woman talking the time when she was just seven years old standing in line to get food and seeing someone keel over, dead of starvation right in front of her. You followed these children and their stories through the exhibit, seeing photos of their thin frightened faces, watching the elderly men and women cry at their memories, and every part of it was hard to watch. One child was sent to a part of the country where they speak not Dutch but Frisian, and when he returned to his family, could no longer remember any Dutch, another returned to find his siblings had all died, just heartbreaking stories every one of them. Then at the end of the exhibit, when I was all ready for closure and the happy ending, in the past there was a display about children dying of hunger today. Not many Dutch children starve these days, but children elsewhere do. The museum called for donations, and for activism. They wanted to transform all of the easy empathy we’d found by listening to sweet old Dutch ladies into food for hungry stomachs in Zambia or Tajikistan.

I was devastated by the end of this exhibit, but also incredibly impressed because learning to feel with another person’s hurt takes effort and determination, and it’s not any fun. They’re two distinct steps: the empathy and the action, but they’re both important, and they go hand in hand, because it is very hard to fill a need, to soothe a hurt if you do not see it. I hope that more and more I will be someone who is active in my engagement with this world. Conscientious, well informed, and especially quick to listen to those with whom I may disagree. When I pray (or cry, or empathize) I want to move my feet.


  1. Clara, this is so beautiful. It reminds me of an article I read a few months ago about how everyone is really quick to judge charities and if charities make one mistake it is super hard for them to bounce back, but if corporations make mistakes and then change accordingly to improve their business, everyone accepts that as growing pains. It's so easy to discourage people and so much harder to pray and act. I want to talk to you more about this. I am going to share this post in the meantime. LOVE.

  2. Thanks, Amanda. I've been thinking about all of this for a long time. And I'm clearly still working on it. And yes, let's talk about it.

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