Saturday, December 20, 2014

Take a Dose of Empathy and See If It Helps you Feel Better

I spent the years of my life before college in DuPage County, IL, a nearly homogeneous bastion of white, conservative Middle America.  The spectrum of ethnicity we had was dominated almost entirely by the choice of religion.  We didn't have blacks or Hispanics or even Asians living in our communities and attending my schools - if there were any, I never knew of them or saw them.  As a boy, I seem to recall being told a  story that a middle-class African-American couple wanted to buy a home in one of my hometown neighborhoods.  All the neighbors were so horrified, the story goes, they offered to buy the property from the homeowners rather than letting a black couple live in their precious paradise.  I don't know if the story is true.  But it's safe to say that I grew up in lily-white America, and it was very much like that in my university experiences, as well.  Yes, there were diverse ethnicities at the Universities of Wisconsin and Oklahoma in the 1960s (especially on the football teams!), but not in the circles within which I circulated.  I was taking mostly math and physics and such, after all.

In July of 1969, I was drafted into the Army and even spent a tour in Vietnam.  Needless to say, the Army wasn't too proud to take anyone in as cannon fodder in Vietnam, so I was suddenly tossed into a world where cultural and ethnic diversity was light years beyond anything I'd ever experienced.  I was rather startled by it all ... but all of us enlisted draftee swine had a common enemy:  the Army!  In the military, you make friends quickly or you'll have no friends at all.  Via the vehicle of marijuana, I suddenly found myself amidst a very different group of people than at any time before:  blacks from all over the US, Latinos, even southern rednecks!!  And a few of us actually respected the Vietnamese rather than dismissing them as contemptible, subhuman "gooks".  The "heads" were my primary group affiliation, although my best friend in the military was a white farmer from Oregon - and he hung with the same group I did!  Lo and behold.  After the shock wore off, I found it relatively easy to get along with pretty much any cultural or ethnic group.  I realized by actually talking with them that they valued mostly the same things I did.  They disliked many of the same things I did.  We had much in common and I found the cultural differences interesting, rather than threatening.

That experience stayed with me, but when I left the military and returned to the civilian world, I re-entered those circles that traditionally have been sparsely-populated by non-whites.  Hence, my group affiliations once again reflected a relative minimum of diversity.  Recently, though, there has been some progress.  Circumstances once again have conspired to let me know real people who don't share my skin coloration and ethnic background.  Lo, and behold! - they've had very different experiences from mine!  When they share their experiences, I sometimes find myself being embarrassed for those who share my ethnicity but not my attitudes.  It's not my fault that some people I know are racists, but it's difficult to interact comfortably with my non-white friends when some awful example of racism becomes front page news.  I guess I shouldn't expect comfort when confronting these issues, eh?

Here's what I think is the key to eventually defeating the poison of racism in our nation:  empathy.  If people just try to imagine what the world looks like to someone different from themselves, then perhaps we can begin to see why they do what they do, and think like how they think.  It doesn't necessarily mean that they're right in their thinking (nor does it mean I'm right in my thinking), but it helps to understand them better.  If you take advantage of any chances to speak with someone different and thereby have a dialog about things, perhaps you will learn things you never imagined to be so.  How does the world look to someone else?  You'll never know if you don't listen and don't ask - if you never talk with them and at least try to imagine their point of view. True empathy is when you've experienced precisely what they've experienced, but the next best thing is hearing about their experiences directly from them.  Then at least you can imagine what it might be like for them.

I can make an argument that empathy is the wellspring of morality ... but this is not the time or place.  As we approach the Christmas holiday season, I wish I could give everyone a big dose of empathy.  I suspect many people would feel better in a lot of ways if I could do that.