empathy

Early in the morning of New Year’s Day, a young man was shot in the back by a BART police officer. (Trial, protests, riots, long letters-to-the-editor all pending.) I’ve been fairly interested in this tragedy for a lot of reasons, among them: it happened in the city that I call home; I am always interested in issues of racism and police brutality; whenever there are race-related riots I can’t help but think of the Rodney King riots that happened while I was still living in Los Angeles; etc., etc., etc. I have tried to avoid comments left on news stories; frankly, I find most major newspaper comments to be just this side of asinine. But I have seen several that suggested that the victim either “got what he deserved” or wouldn’t have been shot had he not been doing something wrong in the first place.

I find this general lack of sympathy to be deeply disturbing.

It seems painfully obvious to me that most people — most of us — assume that everyone has the same set of choices and opportunities and experiences. We project our lives onto the lives of others. Which, it goes without saying, is hogwash.

Every morning when I bike to work, I cross Telegraph Avenue, head under the 980 freeway to West Street, and turn north toward Berkeley. The ride takes me through West Oakland which may as well be a different country. Kids who grow up in this other America have fundamentally different choices than the ones I had growing up.

I spend a lot of time talking about the American Dream with my Japanese students. They’ve heard of the American Dream. And they know that the American Dream means having a big house, being famous or powerful, fabulously wealthy, and having a beautiful wife. And they know the routine. Anyone can get the American Dream. All you have to do is work hard enough and it’s yours.

Which is a lie. The deck is stacked against most folks. The American Dream assumes we’re all dealt the same cards. But the reality is that we’re not.

I am the son of a single mother who raised her two sons with the incredible help and support of a protective grandmother and a close-knit extended family. And because my mother wanted the best for her kids, she worked the system and sent us to a school in a well-off part of town. (To get a good idea of what life was like for a teenaged dr. scott, may I refer you to Some Kind of Wonderful. Picture me in the role of Watts.) So I got dealt a pretty good hand, all things considered. But the kids I went to school with — whose parents bought them brand new cars on their sixteenth birthdays, whose parents could send them to the Stanfords and the Princetons of this world without borrowing any money for tuition — they were dealt considerably better hands.

These hands cannot compare to the crappy cards kids get dealt if they’re unfortunate enough to be born into poverty, to be born a person of color.

They have a fundamentally different set of circumstances to contend with. And those circumstances create a different set of choices.

I had a choice when I turned eighteen: keep waiting tables and screwing off with my friends; or keep waiting tables, go to community college, and try to do something better with my life. I knew college was an option because my mom made sure to tell us that it was an option. What’s more, she showed us what going to college looked like. She finished her bachelor’s degree in spite of the fact that her husband had just left her with two kids under the age of four. My circumstances presented these choices to me. These were my choices, my circumstances, my worldview. And I’m deeply grateful for that.

Other folks have the following choice: find a way — any way — to make some money; or starve to death.

We always make the best choices possible based on available information. You cannot make a choice that you do not know you have.

It is irrational to expect someone to make a choice that he or she cannot see.

There are so many privileged people who are unwilling or unable to empathize with those who have different choices. There are so many privileged people who deride criminals as fundamentally flawed humans, downright evil, without stopping to even try to understand the circumstances in which they are making their choices. That they are somehow beyond redemption.

I am not suggesting that we should all just blame society; I am suggesting that we are not immune to the forces of society.

It bothers me deeply that we are unable to walk a mile in another man’s shoes. That there are those who are quick to deride the victim of a police shooting as some low-life who probably deserved it. It disturbs me greatly that people are unable to imagine or empathize or sympathize with the experiences of other people. It worries me that most people do nothing more than project their own worldview, their own experiences onto other people.

This is the heart of compassion. The example of Kannon is instructive. Kannon “hears the cries of the world.” Regardless of the type of suffering or the cause of suffering or relative worth of the sufferer, Kannon hears and responds and does whatever she can to alleviate the suffering.

Would that each of us could embody this level of compassion.

If you’ve stuck with me this far, you now realize that your set of choices has been fundamentally altered. You now have an extra choice in your life. You can choose to ignore the suffering of others, you can choose to project your values on them; or you can choose to empathize with them, to imagine yourself as the other, to embrace them with compassion.

Try it. It’ll change everything.

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5 thoughts on “empathy

  1. This is at least the third time that I have been given something to work on from my teacher and it has shown up everywhere. We just had a long discussion about compassion and here it is again.

    I agree that the lack of sympathy and compassion is very disturbing. It truly is amazing how your outlook on life changes when you decide to look at the world with compassion for all beings and all parties involved in any given situation.

    I have found another benefit to that way of thinking as well. It seems that when I look at life with compassion for all, it brings me out of my own “Woe is me” world.

  2. Wonderful post, thank you.

    And thank you also, really, from the depths of my heart, for sharing my practice with your readers. It has indeed changed everything for me. It’s a happy-sad, broken-hearted feeling. It’s amazing how such a simple gesture can switch on a completely new heart dimension.

    I hope all who try it will experience a closing of the separation between “me” and “other.”

    Anjali,
    Alice

  3. @ Alice: your post has generated several really interesting conversations amongst my friends. Had to give it longer legs!

    Thanks to all for the comments. This piece was rolling around my head for the better part of the last two months. Glad what finally made it out was of some value to others.

    take care…

  4. Hi Scott,

    I’m very curious about some of your conversations. Would it be possible to get a little taste? A morsel? 🙂

    If and when you have the time and/or inclination, shoot me a quick email? No rush, and totally up to you whether you want to share or not. I’m just so interested!

    Thanks regardless!

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