Posts Tagged ‘Empathy’

Embrace Empathy

Posted: March 22, 2016 in Uncategorized
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By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty

An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.

New and emerging education research examines and supports the critical importance of empathy, both as theory and practice.


Last week, the theme in my ENG 325 class was ‘Diversity, Inclusion, and Cultural Pluralism.’ I intentionally frame the conversations by addressing aspects of constructive choice (it is not ‘racism, sexism, and xenophobia’ week). Learning how to nurture positive responses to difference is much more empowering. Moreover, research shows that diversity feeds creativity, productivity, and stability.

We live in a diverse world, one in which our experiences are both strikingly similar and decidedly different than other members of our human family; a glimpse at what it means to be alive right now on this planet is offered in this fascinating video.

Another text that informs our dialogue is the (rather hippy-trippy, even for me) documentary called I Am, which delves deeper into the interconnection of all living things. Ultimately, concerning ourselves with the well-being of all life is an act that benefits everyone.

Connecting with each and every other person we encounter is an enormous challenge, but one that must be met. According to Jeremy Rifkin whose work The Empathic Civilization was presented as a lecture at the RSA, and beautifully animated here, suggests that if we don’t prioritize and promote empathy, “We’re simply not going to make it.”

Daily incidents of violence and destruction declare the importance of empathy. If we respect and value difference, if we feel connected to all of humanity, if we see in them a mirror of ourselves rather than a frightening, menacing other, it is much more difficult to label, harass, blame, or inflict pain.

Many years ago, a storyteller visited my school in Brecksville, Ohio. I recall sitting in a circle with my classmates in the little library inside Chippewa Elementary school. This event was greeted with the standard amount of elementary-school excitement—a real, live storyteller! We were going to experience something new and exciting, the way learning felt to all of us then (naturally I still love learning and libraries).

At the end of his performance, the storyteller shared a brief and ultimately prescient parable (the message came to resonate later in my life). The story offered a lesson in the destructive power of hatred. The exact words I have forgotten, yet the meaning remains incredibly vivid.

Here is what I remember:

Once upon a time, there was a powerful ruler. He craved complete power. As such, he was terribly jealous of his closest rival. The ruler wanted nothing more than to exceed his rival in every possible way.

Eager to realize his goal, the envious, suspicious leader asked for the assistance of a magical creature.

The wise creature told the ruler he would be granted one wish, with one stipulation. When the ruler’s wish came true, the benefit requested would be doubled and bestowed on the despised rival. If the ruler asked for a million pieces of gold, he would receive it, but his rival would receive twice that amount.

The ruler thought for a long time, confused and conflicted. Surely, what he wanted most was to surpass his rival. What gift that would be doubled could possibly achieve that end?

The ruler came to a decision and announced his desire.

“I have chosen my wish. I wish for you to strike me blind in one eye.”

The other children and I were stunned.

“How could anyone ever wish for something so terrible?” we naively asked.




Posted: November 13, 2015 in Uncategorized
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By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty
I encountered an old Jewish myth that explains the origin of human suffering. Before life, each individual is taken to an enormous field of difficulties and instructed to select the bundle of troubles that he or she will take to earth. The most significant detail of the tale emerges when, after life, each person is brought back to the same field, only to select the same bag of troubles.


“Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity’s Gate),” Van Gogh

To be sure, each life comes with its own share of miseries. How does the conversation about the difficulties we face differ if we are lead to believe that we select our own troubles, and, after a lifetime of suffering, would still make the same choice?

The tale asks us to recognize of our own fallibility, and our tendency to choose, again and again, the same sorrowful path. The brilliant film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind offers a heartbreakingly beautiful exploration of this territory. We long for heartwarming, romantic love, but frequently allow ourselves to become mired in hurtful relationships. Choosing the same pain, over and over, oblivious, or at least in denial.

By virtue of being earthly creatures, we are subject to injustices of every type. Larger troubles, far out of our control, are created by worldly powers that exact a human toll throughout all of history. Each of us must constantly contend with the agonies of life.

The logical mind in us wants a reason; the creative mind transforms pain into art.

Blues music embodies our poignant endurance, blending knowledge, acceptance, and regret. “Trouble Weighs a Ton,” by Dan Auerbach, mournful, sweet, tells the same sad stories, and in listening we share in the common grief of humankind.
We rely upon the healing force of companionship, connection through art, and a community bravely moving forward; we can and must allow pain to transform us into more compassionate people.

Pain can also reveal our inner strength and determination. “We Shall Overcome,” has ultimately and astonishingly fulfilled its own prophesy.

break through from your mold

“Break Through Your Mold,” Zenos Frudakis

Suffering also builds empathy. Understanding the infinite difficulties in life allows us to connect with others, to share their suffering and ease their pain.

We must withstand tragedy after tragedy, but at least we do not have to do so alone.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Like so many others, I am absolutely psyched for December 18th, 2015.  If you need to ask why, then you probably are not going to understand my excitement. On that day, the new Star Wars is released, and like many within my generation, I will be star-wars-episode-7-the-force-awakens-trailers-poster-640x330lined up at a local theater with bated breath waiting to experience the continuing adventures of Luke, Leia, Han and Chewie. However, I will NOT be dressing up. I’m not that crazy.

I’ll tell you who is crazy though…

Last week after the third and final trailer for Episode VII was released, a strange Twitter trend began.  Evidently, a small group of fools have decided that they should boycott this new Star Wars film because it is ‘promoting a multi-cultural agenda’ and, hence is evidently ‘anti-white.’  A few extremist internet trolls have even argued that the film supports ‘white genocide’.  White genocide…….white genocide.  Lord.

When I first read this my immediate thought was, ‘what is wrong with people?’  Perhaps it was simply a ridiculous hoax? Nope. No such luck. There are obviously people out there who truly believe this garbage.

But, when I started to look into this ridiculous story, I grasped a larger more worrying trend.  As movies begin to slowly get more diverse (far too slowly for the most part), racist responses to film casting are becoming more common.  Star Wars is just the latest, and most extreme example.  In 2012, the first Hunger Games film faced a similar racially charged response.

Amandla Stenberg is 'Rue' in THE HUNGER GAMES.

Amandla Stenberg is ‘Rue’ in THE HUNGER GAMES.

The futuristic, dystopian film had many white fans upset that a character who they assumed was white was played by an African-American actress.  Similar online anger was spewed in 2014 because of the remake of Annie.

So, what to take from this? Why does this bother so many people? I believe the Twitter reactions in these cases point to the heart of modern racism, and why it is still a huge problem within our society.

On an individual level, racism is a system of thought that breeds dehumanization of whatever group is identified as the Other.  Of course, we can look at innumerable examples of racism in American history for illustrations of such beliefs and practices. But perhaps the most obvious example, and most extreme example of dehumanization of the racial Other took place in Nazi Germany.  Nazi Germany was a totalitarian state based upon the ideology of ‘Aryan’ supremacy.  For the Nazi state, this supremacy was constantly attacked by the supposed racial degeneracy of the Aryan’s immortal enemy,

Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda

Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda

the Jew.  Ad nauseum, Nazi propaganda portrayed the Jew not only as dirty, slovenly and treacherous, but also as a dangerous, even deadly, non-human.  Jews were vermin, they were bugs, they were bacterium. The ‘bacillus of Judaism’ was to be destroyed.

Such dehumanization attempts to destroy humanity’s natural desire to empathize.  All humans empathize with others. We can literally feel the physical and emotional pain of others by putting ourselves in their situation,  It doesn’t even need to be a loved one. Humans can empathize with any random stranger.  It comes absolutely naturally.

Empathy helps explain why we love film as much as we do.  Most people want films with action, adventure and a great story.  Those things are great, but without the human element, without characters we can empathize with, action and adventure falls on it’s face. If you want proof, just think about how people responded to the prequel trilogy of Star Wars (Episodes I, II, III). George Lucas’ telling of how Anakin Skywalker turned to the dark side, and eventually, into Darth Vadar. These unbelievably anticipated films should have been classics. Instead, they were critical and popular flops. Why?  Many felt that Lucas depended upon ‘cool’ computer graphics too much, ruining the magic feel of the original trilogy. That had something to do with it. But, what ruined those films was the fact that the human beings in the

We should care, but we don't.

We should care, but we don’t.

audience were not able to care about any of the characters.  We couldn’t empathize with them.  Bad acting, bad story development and bad scripts ruined the films.  When Natalie Portman’s Queen Amidala dies in childbirth, most of the audience yawned. When Anakin/Vadar finds out about the death of his wife (Portman), and reacts with a guttural bellow of pain, the audience laughed. There was absolutely no empathy, and it was understandable.

The twit tweeters who want to boycott the new Star Wars, or who were angry at the Hunger Games or disturbed by the new Annie illustrate their lack of empathy.  However, this lack of empathy does not come from bad acting, or a trite script. This lack of empathy is a sign of the pernicious horror of racism. For those who complain when a character is ‘not white’, or not the correct race, they are truly illustrating that they can’t, or they consciously don’t want to see these characters as human.  For the twitter trolls, the actor and the character he or she plays can only ever be a racial category: An Other.   Finn, Poe Dameron, Rue or Annie become only ‘black’ or ‘Hispanic’.

This is the heart of racism, and why we should take such Twitter trolls seriously.

By Steve Varisco, RMU Student.

I am usually the one complaining. I like to do it. My friends expect me to rant and rave about the simple annoyances in my life. (Some even find it amusing.) I’ve even gone as far as to complain about how terrible it is being a night student: work all day, class all night, on a terrible diet due to no time for dinner, all the homework and group projects, submitting papers for final grades, etc. It is terrible being me with all of my first world problems. This post is something different. I want to share a learning experience I’ve had.

I’ll try almost anything once. I enjoy having unique experiences. There is one experience that will stick with me forever. This came about during my first attempt at college 15 years ago. One of the people in the dorms with me was in a wheelchair. Being the smug and invincible teenager that I was, I bet him that I could handle being in a wheelchair for an entire day. I used to always say, “The whole world is handicap accessible now. What’s the big deal?” Little did I know, my dorm-mate was on the wheelchair basketball team and he had a spare chair. I was about to learn what the big deal was.

The terms of the bet were simple: I couldn’t use my legs for the entire day. But the fun actually started the night before the bet began. The door to my dorm room was not wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair. What I would have to do was roll out of bed and pull myself out into the hall where my new mode of transportation waited for me.

I need to interject at this time and notify all readers that I was 5’10” and weighed in at a whopping 145 lbs. My musculature could have, and was, described as non-existent. Pulling myself across the 15 feet from my bed to the door was not exactly stress free. What was worse was trying to maneuver in the bathroom. But that is a story for another day.

Finally, I’m in my chair and ready to make my way to class. Right from the start, I noticed the smallest incline in every sidewalk. The idea of propelling myself up each one seemed like a cruel punishment. Had I not wheelchairknown better, I would have thought that my stride-challenged friend had spoken to God himself to ensure that there were no downhill slopes the whole way to class. I was moving at a snail’s pace. By the time I got to class I was 15 minutes late. Usually, I was 5 minutes early. First lesson learned. Can’t move so fast when the world is leaning against you.

Once in class a fun new discovery hit me. All the desks had the chairs connected to them. There was no way I was going to try sliding in one. I decided using a hardcover text book as a table top was the best idea. As I pull the backpack off of my lap I realized how sweaty and steamy the gap in between the two points had become. I was soaking wet wherever the backpack had been touching. Luckily the backpack was waterproof or else almost the entire contents would have been in contact with “eau de Varisco.” As I’m about to put the book on my lap so I could take notes, I decide against the idea. I just felt disgusting as I sat defeated and listened to the instructor drone on for the rest of the hour.

Finally it was time to go back to my dorm. Learning from earlier mistakes, I sling the backpack around the back of the chair. I roll outside and relish in the fact that the whole ride back will be downhill. I start rolling towards the dorm. Thank goodness I don’t have to push myself. I start picking up speed. The breeze feels so refreshing. I get to the end of the block. I hadn’t had to stop like this yet. I grab the wheel rails and they slide through my hands. I let go. I brace myself and grab on again. The rails are sliding through my hands, burning as I try and stop. I clamp down and manage to hold on to execute my stop before hitting the street. I look at my hands. They are black from dirt and a fine layer of skin had been removed. Second lesson learned. Every advantage has a disadvantage.

It was only 10:30 a.m. and I was already hating my big fat mouth. I roll inside and was greeted by the professional wheeler. “How’s it going?” he asks.

I can hear him already enjoying what he thinks will be a victory. I muster the best smile I can, “Piece of cake!” I say as I roll towards my room.

I expect my arms to fall apart at any time. I get to my room and remember I won’t be able to go in there. The chair doesn’t fit. I turn around and roll to the common area tables. I can see Mr. Wheels smiling at the other end of the hall.

I live through the whole ordeal two more times during the day. No matter how much I planned, I was never able to anticipate all the obstacles in my way. On the way to my second class, I found that my shortcut through 792886_1_Ocampus woods wasn’t going to help. Foot trails aren’t made for wheelchairs. Halfway down the paved path through the woods, I encountered a downed tree limb. Any other day I could have just stepped over. That day, I had to double back and take the long way around. By the time I get to class there are only 10 minutes left. The third class is on the other side of campus. I usually make it just in time. Defeated, I roll back to the dorm. Third lesson learned. I’m an idiot for thinking I can do this.

Upon my return, I’m sweating, out of breath, dirty and tired. Wheelie is waiting for me. I could sense him sitting there smiling from the time I gave up on going to my third class. When I get inside, I roll up to him and concede. “You win” is what I wanted to say. I couldn’t really say much. I was worn out. I stand up, glad to use my legs. They were the only parts of my body that weren’t screaming for relief. I wave off the chair and Mr. Wheels. My hand is a smear of dirt and blood. Defeated I walk into my dorm room and fall asleep.

Wheelie McWheelson and I are still friends to this day. Whenever we meet up, a game of wheelchair basketball is customary. Needless to say, he always wins. He also never lets me forget that day. Even if he didn’t constantly remind me I will never forget. Learning about somebody by walking a mile in their shoes is dumb. Try wheeling “half” a mile in somebody else’s chair.

By Blake Whitmore, RMU Student.

I enjoy looking around at all the different people on the CTA red line train during my morning commute. I look around making up elaborate back stories for the all the individuals. The woman sitting across from me had a small stain on her dress. I imagined it was from a cup of coffee a few months earlier. She went on a date with the most amazing guy that made her laugh a little too hard, causing her to spill a little of her frothy whipped mocha coffee on her dress. The small mark never fully disappeared, but the dress fit her too well and had too many memories to throw it away now. The engagement ring on her finger seemed new, since she continued to play with it and spin it around her finger. She seemed happy and that made me happy.

A man sat next to me. He hadn’t shaved in a couple of days. Dark plump bags rested underneath his eyes. He pulled out a small pair of glasses and put them on and reached for a notepad from his bag. He began writing, but I couldn’t tell what because it was in Russian. I recognized it because my roommate and her family are fluent in Russian. I imagined that he moved here years ago to benefit his three daughters. He wanted them to have a better life than he had, so even though his degrees in Biomedical Technology weren’t recognized in America he and his family packed their bags. He picked up an entry level position at a telemarketing firm to support his family. He worked long hours and got paid barely more than minimum wage. His only escape was the small short stories he wrote in his notepad. He seemed sad and that made me sad.

ImageI did not know these people and they didn’t know me. We pass countless numbers of people every day through our morning commutes and our trips to the grocery store. Only for a brief moment are we a part of that person’s life, and them a part of ours. I look up and down the train car one last time. Most people are buried in their phones and tablets, but I catch the eye of a woman at the end of the car. Her clothes were tattered and covered in filth. Her toes showed through the holes in here sneakers. Her blank stare read like she had no home, no place to wander to after a long day. She doesn’t look happy or sad as a man knocks into her pull cart and doesn’t even acknowledge her existence. I smiled at her. She smiled back and I got off the train to walk to work. I know nothing about her, but I will never forget her.

Walking up the stairs to work I wonder if she will remember me. Will the newly engaged girl with the cute stained dress remember me? Will the Russian writer even know I was there? I looked down at what I was wearing: a summer dress and flip flops. What did that give away? Do they guess at my back story? Every weekday morning my alarm clock goes off at exactly 7:00 AM. I get up and begin the daily routine. That word routine makes me cringe. The mundane routine of a 9 to 5 job has finally set in, but I still look forward to my commute. I leave my apartment at exactly 8:15 AM with a travel mug of hot tea and a good book in hand. I run up the stairs of the CTA platform only to barely miss the train heading south. I place my headphones in my ears and press play on whatever Spotify playlist I have a hankering for that morning. I crack open my book and read a few chapters before the train gets really crowded, but no one notices. I am just another passer-by.