Empathy: Would it Bring World Peace?

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world-peace-logo_4qghS_65We’ve all heard the adage (or some variation thereof), “Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes.” This is about developing empathy, which is in short supply in this world. If there is one thing that causes disconnects between people, it is a lack of empathy. Every time we criticize another person or group, we almost certainly are guilty of not being empathetic.

Being empathetic is not the same as being sympathetic, but most people seem to think it is. Empathy can lead to sympathy, but sympathy doesn’t necessarily lead to empathy. You can feel sorry for someone without entering into his world, or more specifically, his head. In fact, sympathy implies that you are maintaining some distance and looking at a person’s situation from the comfort of your own (superior) position. Empathy is harder to attain and harder to feel.

Months before I converted to Islam, I wrote a post about the Islamic item of clothing called the hijab. (Women’s Rights: The Headscarf.) At the time I had no idea that I was going to convert, let alone that I would ever wear the hijab myself. I felt sympathy for the women who wear it, because of the way they are viewed—and treated—by non-Muslims. They can’t “pass” as non-Muslims, or fade into the background when it’s uncomfortable to be identified as one. (For this reason, I view wearing the hijab as a mark of bravery as much as a symbol of one’s faith.)

But I can’t say that what I felt was empathy. I simply didn’t know enough about what it was like to wear the hijab, what courage it took to put it on every day, the strength of motivation that was required to wear it in a society that is ambivalent (at best) about Muslims.

I’ve heard of social experiments where non-Muslim women have put on the hijab for a period of time (usually a day or a week, at the most) in order to get some idea of what it’s like to be a Muslim woman, let alone a woman who wears one (often known as a “hijabi”). That’s fine as far is it goes, but it doesn’t begin to address all the issues faced by Muslims, like finding a place to pray five times a day, or fasting during Ramadan (or learning how to pray in the first place, if you’re a convert).

I no longer wear the hijab and, in fact, am in a state of flux about exactly where I stand in the matter of religion. I still subscribe to the basic theology of Islam, but I’m undecided about how “Muslim” I’m willing to be. But I will never be sorry that I converted. Because if I hadn’t I don’t think I would have the empathy it takes to understand where Muslims are coming from. I could have studied Islam for a thousand years and it wouldn’t have taught me what I really wanted to know, which is: what is it like to be a Muslim?

Obviously we can’t convert to every religion, let alone pretend to be another race, for instance, in order to develop empathy. But there is a lot we can do to approximate walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.

  • We can learn another language.
  • We can travel, whether it’s to a different country or another part of town.
  • We can watch movies with subtitles.
  • We can read, anything and everything.
  • We can listen to different types of music.
  • We can try different cuisines.
  • We can attend a different kind of religious service.
  • We can sponsor a child.
  • We can invite someone to dinner.
  • We can make a friend.

Anything that exposes us to another culture can help us to develop empathy. But the most important step we must take is to stop limiting ourselves to the way of life we were born into. We have to step outside of our comfort zones. We have to open ourselves up to discoveries and be willing to learn something new, preferably every day.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that the more foreign something seems to you, the more important it is that you embrace it.

It’s so much easier to stick to what we’re used to, to take potshots at things we don’t understand, to hang out with people who are like us. But that’s a recipe for disaster. We can see the results in our world today. What is discrimination but an attempt to prove that the group belong to is better than the group you belong to? What is war but a refusal to admit that we all want—and have a right to—the same things: safety, security, sustenance, love, acceptance and happiness, for ourselves and those we care about?

Developing empathy is an ongoing and many-layered process. None of the suggestions above will, by themselves, help you to become deeply empathetic. But taken together, and repeated often, they will help.

 

 

Review of Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity

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Whew! This is one long book! (Although it’s not as bad as it seems–out of 960 pages, the last 259 are acknowledgements, notes, bibliography and the index.) The hardest thing about reading a book this size was trying to get it in a comfortable position. I considered buying the Nook Book but it was $19.99, so I borrowed the print edition from the library. (The hardbound book’s price is $37.50.)

The author, Andrew Solomon, worked on this book for ten years–and it shows. It’s incredibly detailed, almost too much so. I can’t even imagine the amount of thought and effort that went into it.

The best–and worst–part of the book is all the anecdotes from the interviews he conducted. They helped to put a human face on what he was writing about and kept the book from being too scholarly. But at times it was hard to keep track of all the family members and their unique experiences; they sort of blurred together after awhile.

I loved the first chapter, which was basically an introduction. It contained so many thought-provoking comments I just had to copy many of them into my journal. The author states his thesis clearly and gives the reader a perspective that makes sense of the rest of the book. This was helpful because when I saw the chapter headings, I couldn’t help but wonder what made him think that all these disparate topics would have a common thread.

Those chapter headings are: Deaf, Dwarfs, Down Syndrome, Autism, Schizophrenia, Disability, Prodigies, Rape, Crime and Transgender. The first six make sense, since they are all usually seen as disabilities of one kind or another. But the last four seem to be anomalies and it’s to the author’s credit that he’s able to present his premise convincingly in all of them (with varying degrees of success).

I won’t dissect each topic here, but I will make a couple of comments. Some of the chapters were real eye-openers; I hadn’t realized the obstacles that some families face when trying to raise autistic or severely handicapped, for instance. The chapter on prodigies was my least favorite chapter because the author chose to write only about musical prodigies and the examples got to be pretty repetitive.

I was also surprised that he didn’t choose homosexuality as a topic (transgender is not the same thing!). That could be because he writes about his own homosexuality in the first and last chapters, but he doesn’t go into much detail about how various families deal with a child’s homosexuality. I would have liked to have read about that.

For the most part, Solomon presents a good mix of the experiences of fathers and mothers, but even so he seems to imply that the mother has more influence on how well a child transitions into successful adulthood. Although I don’t deny the importance of mother-child relationships, I thought the view that mothers are largely responsible for raising well-adjusted children had been largely discredited. Apparently not.

I also objected to his use of dialect when writing about families that were less educated and poor. He especially did this in the chapter on crime, making it seem like it is only the disadvantaged who have a problem with crime. Plenty of middle-to-upper-class people commit crimes; they just rarely pay the same penalties for their actions as lower class people do.

Far From the Tree is important because of what it says about families. It illustrates how different parents deal with their children’s differences and how those children respond to their treatment. The main thing I took away from this book was a greater sensitivity for what some parents go through in their attempts to love and raise their children. It certainly made me count my blessings.

Don’t let the length of this book deter you. It’s well worth the time and effort.

Where’s Our Safety Net?

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There’s an article in the latest issue (September 20, 2010) of The Nation titled “It’s Better Over There” that’s about the safety net that exists in Europe (specifically Germany) that doesn’t exist in the U.S. The author, Katha Pollitt, who is a columnist for The Nation (among other things), just came back from spending a year in Berlin and her report about how things are for the poor and the middle class in an economy that is hurting (although in better shape than ours) really made me think.

Here are some of the things Germans have that much of the U.S. doesn’t:

  • Six weeks of vacation and twenty-seven paid holidays.
  • Job security and retirement pensions.
  • Free, or nearly free education, including college.
  • Healthcare including nursing. (The German system requires everyone to buy insurance, but provides subsidies for low earners. Sound familiar?)
  • A government that provides partial compensation for lost wages and encourages companies to shorten hours rather than lay people off.
  • Paid maternity and maternity leave. [For international comparisons of parental leave policies, go here.]

This isn’t to say that social democratic systems like Germany’s are perfect, but they must be doing something right: Germany’s unemployment rate is around 7-7.5 and the United States’ is over 9 and worsening. [Source.]

But just mention social democracy and conservatives go crazy. They assume that social democracy is socialism, pure and simple. It’s not. One definition of social democracy (the one that applies to Germany) is: “a democratic welfare state that incorporates both capitalist and socialist practices.” It’s the “socialist” part that freaks conservatives out. But what social democracy means in practice is that the government is more hands-on in relation to issues that affect the common good. It’s not good for a country to have a high number of poor and unemployed. It costs everyone else a lot of money. It’s much better to spend that money making sure that workers are employed and spending their money. That’s what makes for a healthy economy.

It used to be that democracy meant “the rule of the majority.” But when you look at America today, you have to ask yourself if that’s still true. It seems to me that it is the wealthy and influential who rule America. And in their short-sighted desire to keep as much of their wealth and power as they can to themselves, they’ve robbed the majority of their right to make decisions that affect their very lives.

The term “majority” doesn’t mean the largest racial, religious or socioeconomic group. It means the most people overall. That means that minorities like blacks, Hispanics, immigrants, the handicapped, Muslims, welfare recipients and the poor all have a right to have their voices heard and their concerns addressed. And let’s not forget the largest group in this society: women. If we make up a majority of the population and of the workforce, why aren’t our needs being addressed?

I’ve written before about how vulnerable women are in our society. We have no maternity leave, fewer benefits, less pay and little or no support for the needs of our families. Women are often forced to work part-time because they can’t afford to pay for full-time child care (and women are still thought of as the primary child-care providers. Elder care also falls unfairly on the shoulders of women).

But this isn’t just a women’s issue. All of us are at risk. If our families aren’t protected and provided for, then what good is our government anyway?

We don’t have to identify as a social democracy in order to start caring for all our people. Returning to the original meaning of democracy would be enough.

What About Population Control?

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In the seventies, population control was a huge issue, but like many other hot topics this one has fallen by the wayside. For most people, that is. Not apparently for the man who held three people hostage at The Discovery Channel headquarters yesterday. James J. Lee, who was eventually shot and killed by police, was upset with The Discovery Channel because of the lack of environmental policy on its shows, not the least of which was “Kate Plus Eight” which he felt promoted population growth.

Lee took extreme measures (he even had explosives strapped to his body) to register his protest, but I couldn’t help but wonder when I read the news story where all the protestors about population growth have gone. There are millions more people on the earth than when the book The Population Bomb came out in 1968. (India alone has tripled its population since 1960 from 400 million to 1.2 billion today.) The author, Paul R. Erhlich, was mostly concerned with the world’s ability to feed its ever-increasing population, but since most developed countries have risen to that challenge, the furor over his predictions have died down.

Here in the United States, food supply is not a problem so we tend to overlook the billion people world-wide who go hungry every day. These days the problem is not so much production as it is access. In other words, the world’s population could be fed adequately if we could just get the food to the people who need it.

If the food supply is keeping up with the demand, why should we worry about population growth? I can think of two reasons why we should: 1) depletion of energy resources; and 2) global warming. The more people in the world, the more dire these problems will become. It’s hard to keep on providing enough energy when the number of people needing it is constantly increasing. (And it’s not only the number of people, but their changing lifestyles—like more cars when people’s ability to pay for them increases—that add to the problem.) As more energy is expended, the release of more and more carbons into the atmosphere will only continue to add to the collective problems under the umbrella of global warming.

Maybe we need a book like The Population Bomb for the new millenium. Too bad James J. Lee couldn’t have written one instead of trying to reduce the population by his own hand.

Continue reading What About Population Control?

Tuesday Tirade: Tough Talk About Immigration

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Imagine you come from an area in Mexico where hundreds of women have been murdered over the last couple of decades. Or that you live in a neighborhood where you have to worry about gunfire as you take your children to school. You want a better life for yourself and your children. You decide to emigrate to the U.S. But doing it legally could, and often does, take years. Your children are young now.

Personally, I think immigration policy in this country is, and always has been, too restrictive. We are a huge country, with plenty of room and resources to support many more people than now live here. We just don’t want to share. We don’t want to have to make accommodations. And we most certainly don’t want to take on the problems of other countries.

Well, guess what, folks? We’re going to be affected by world-wide events whether we like it or not. Take Arizona for instance. From what I’ve read, Arizona has good reason to fear the violence coming over its borders from the south. But is the answer to stop any suspicious person on the street, demand identification and possibly arrest them? All we can do is deport them. What does that solve?

We need to work harder to forge alliances with the countries we interact with so that we can aid them in their efforts to better their situations. Instead, we stick our noses in their business, stir things up and then refuse their people access to our country when they find life untenable in their own.

Take Iraq for instance. I’m against the war, and always have been. But even if I were behind it, I would still feel that we need to help those whose lives we’ve disrupted. Instead, we make it next to impossible for an Iraqi to emigrate to the U.S. Even those who have served as translators for the U.S., and are at risk from reprisals,  find it difficult to find refuge in America.

There are several issues related to immigration that we need to come to terms with:

Continue reading Tuesday Tirade: Tough Talk About Immigration

“The Hijabi Monologues” Are Almost Here!

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“The Hijabi Monologues” will be performed at Ohio State University on April 30th and May 1st, 2010.

This really is a unique opportunity. We will have performers coming from New York and Canada!

The Hijabi Monologues have been performed throughout the US (Yale University, all over California, South Florida, DC, New York and even Egypt)! This isn’t only a performance, but a movement.
Also, please reserve through Facebook:

For more information, refer to my earlier post about the tryouts.