Empath in the Wild: The Sorry Rug
Both my father and mother have been working in Republican politics my entire life, but my political leanings fall pretty far to the left, due to a nebulous conglomeration of incidental factors. The contrast between the reddish hue of my family environments and the blueish one of my educational and extra-familial social environments, along with, I think, my experiences having separated parents, has taught me to see both sides of things — or else suffer alienation from those dearest to me.
I spent eight years of my childhood attending a teeny-tiny Montessori school, where the curriculum was as much academic as it was interpersonal. The Montessori approach to teaching and learning is loosely structured and individualized to each student. This, paired with my school's fairly extensive financial aid program, meant that I was in classrooms with kids of different abilities, racial and ethnic backgrounds and varying financial backgrounds as well.
In the classroom, I was socialized from a young age to see others not through these filters, but instead to see them as the multidimensional human beings they are. I didn't have homework when I went there, and each time I had a disagreement with one of my peers, we had to sit across from each other on the "sorry rug,” accept one another’s apologies, and hand each other fake yellow roses.
There is an underlying message I learned from being surrounded for so much of my childhood by people who are different from me in more obvious and culturally determined ways than, say, another upper-middle-class white girl who lives in the suburbs. It's a message of empathy. And since then, I’ve practiced and developed this skill so I can empathize with a wide variety of people, including my mostly affluent, mostly white, mostly conservative family members, along with my friends, family, acquaintances and strangers who are none of those things.
Empathy is a semi-social act. It begins by placing myself in the company of others, physically or virtually, say, via the internet, and then thinking about it in solitude. Then my empathetic practice can (but doesn't have to) influence my actions toward other people.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it's the power of projecting one's personality into, and therefore fully comprehending, the object of contemplation. So, empathy is a contemplative act, not dissimilar to some forms of meditation. Of course, the empath's understanding of someone else's point of view is subjective — but more on this later.
And like meditation, empathizing takes practice. A hundred small empathetic thought-feelings for people who hold perspectives varying in magnitude of difference from my own can allow me to empathize with someone who holds a drastically different perspective — or even someone who hates me.
Throughout my life, I practiced empathy not only for people who are different from me in all the ways my Montessori classmates were, but also for my close family members to whom, because of my educational and social environments, I had grown dissimilar.
In the intensely polarized sociopolitical environment of the 2016 presidential election, my tendencies as an empath had me lost. How can I see close friends with immigrant parents cry on the phone with their families when the results of the election became clear, then turn to face my father, who voted red this time around?
Inner tensions like this one, the result of witnessing and coming to understand my friends’ and family members’ drastically different personal experiences, have challenged me to contemplate the bounds of empathy. There have been times when I’ve come to understand so deeply why someone might vote for Trump that my thoughts have sounded similar to those of an apologist. Because of the slippery slope from empathizing to making (un)ethical compromises, I’ve questioned whether continuing to develop my empathetic practice is a morally sustainable endeavor. After sustained reflection and numerous conversations with people of varying backgrounds, I’ve come to an understanding that, if practiced carefully, empathy is actually a necessity.
I’ve come to find similarities between how people talk about empathy and how people talk about beauty. I think empathy is beautiful, and as Elaine Scarry writes in “On Beauty and Being Just,” beholding a beautiful thing can help to further justice in the world.
When one perceives something to be beautiful, it is because the object of beauty makes sense to its beholder. When I empathize with someone, their perspective feels valid to me; it makes sense to me, even if only for a brief period of time. According to Scarry, beauty is fleeting, but for a moment it gives the beholder a sense of conviction.
At the same time, perceiving a beautiful thing also confronts me with my own capacity to make errors in judgment. Something I didn’t think was beautiful before appears beautiful to me now. Something that appeared beautiful before falls out of sense to me, pales in comparison to another, more truly beautiful thing I behold.
Beauty prompts a search for that which is more beautiful. “It comes to us,” Scarry writes, “with no work of our own; then leaves us prepared to undergo a giant labor.” Beauty is a starting place for education, she argues. And if empathy is beautiful, then it, too, prompts a search for that which is more “true,” which makes more sense to me.
But if I’m constantly searching for things that make more sense to me, one can argue it follows that eventually the most beautiful thing will be my own perspective. But this is an erroneous counterargument. The more I practice empathy, the stretchier my empathetic imagination becomes. Empathy and reason converge when I understand the perspectives of oppressors but ultimately take the side of the oppressed.
If empathy is beautiful, I argue experiencing empathy is sacred — something that has no precedent in my imaginative memory, something that puts me in awe, something that prompts me to consider my errors in judging this beauty and something that ultimately acts as a vital force.
Regan Detwiler is an LSA senior and former editorial page editor for The Michigan Daily.