When Dan Arel asked me to contribute to his blog, I thought I’d write a mostly fluffy, but brief, introductory piece about myself and the sources of inspiration and enlightenment that motivate my posts before getting into meatier topics. However, in light of what has happened and is happening in Ferguson, Mo. right now, the fluff has quite departed and most of my intended levity with it. So, instead, I will summarize that my life experiences, as a whole, have been filled with love, privilege, and fervor. Having a supportive husband, a healthy child, friends, family, and material comfort and necessities gives me the ability to look back on my struggles with perspective.
Recounting all of my struggles would quickly remind me that I did not always have the privilege of perspective, nor the inward calm and resolve to weather them as gracefully as would have been best. I have done harm to parts of myself and others on my way to a place where I can look back and marvel at how far I’ve come with the scars pretty much healed and covered beneath layers of comfortable fabric. My personal history, I think, is not so unlike the history of a country or a culture. I am glad to be where I am when I get to a place comfortable enough to take a short respite from progress, and when I remember the past, I see it all as a means of helping me to get to this happy place.
I suppose, if I were not comfortable with where I was, I would keep moving. There would be little energy for reflection in the actual drudgery of my struggles. In fact, as I can recall, there was quite a bit of wallowing, denial, lashing out, and painful transformation. It was a cumulative effort of my own and my supporters that got me to where I am today, but it is possible that my arrival might never have come. It is possible that I could have perished struggling or surrendered to adversity. Many do.
Many people die before ever knowing justice, happiness, or freedom. Some people are able to glimpse of these things in quantities more privileged people would deem inadequate to nourish a human being.
In the United States, a developed nation, people suffer greatly. In other places, like Syria, Nigeria, or parts of rural China, people suffer greatly. Truly, human suffering is abundant, if you wish to see it, no matter where you look. I do look. And although I am powerless to stop most of it, in seeing and knowing, I gain perspective and understand just how important it is to have an opinion and to care about what happens to people I will never meet.
Willpower, it is claimed, is like a muscle. You only have so much strength, but the more you use it, the stronger it gets. I believe empathy functions similarly. While I wholeheartedly believe that fiction and escapism are wonderful and serve a purpose in helping us cope with reality, I still believe in becoming aware of that reality. The less you are aware of the world around you, the less effective you can be in creating any change in the world or yourself. Building and creating empathy within yourself takes work, but that is exactly more of what is needed. With empathy, we can end racism, sexism, oppression, and bridge the gaps between nations and cultures.
It all sounds so otherworldly that so many more people could be happy just because someone else cared about them, but that’s really all it takes. We are all different, but all human, and yet, there is currently less accountability expected when one kind of human harms another in certain contexts. Of course, we are getting better, but I don’t believe we are yet at that comfortable place where we can look back on our struggles and remark on our arrival. We have yet to give proper notice to our own biases and dismantle them. We are still denying that we pass immediate judgments on others whether we wish to or not. We still don’t want to empathize with the “others” because we don’t want to see what we might look like through their eyes.
So close to Thanksgiving and only a day into the protests against the Grand Jury decision in Ferguson, I can find a place for gratitude in empathy. In a world that isn’t fair, I can feel immensely grateful that I’m alive and happy. I can acknowledge that so many people don’t get to keep their lives or their happiness, and I can understand that empathizing with those that need support and speaking out on their behalf is the very least I can do. Having known my own levels of suffering and keeping in mind my own reactions at being treated unfairly, I can have some small inkling of what others in their own trenches must be facing, and if I am unable to help, I can at least listen.
Admittedly, not all people are as capable of empathy. This is another way I consider myself fortunate. Emotional and cognitive development is more of a challenge for some people than others, but innate abilities notwithstanding, growing up and being nurtured in an environment that doesn’t encourage sexism or racism is a significant advantage. When you are raised to see people for their differences as simply different, and not deficits, those teachings are not easily derailed by less reasonable and more bigoted perspectives.
In practicing my gratitude through empathy, I don’t fool myself into thinking the world is any fairer or that I am somehow entitled or more deserving of what I have. I don’t think that suffering is a necessity for progress or that it is to be put upon some pedestal, either. However, in a world where it seems progress occurs always as a result of sacrifice, we should know the full price of oppression and remember it, because it seems as though we are still financing something for which we’ve been holding the title for decades, if not centuries.
I don’t pretend that the US was not founded on injustice or that it hasn’t been a bloody uphill battle to right those wrongs even to this day. The Native Americans and African Americans, once savages and slaves for the benefit of an entity to which they had no claim, still experience second class citizenship. The law of the land that “all men are created equal” has no place in the insidious dealings that still occur on the basis of race, class, and gender. The fact that these prejudices still exist in the face of denials against them are plain when you take even a moment to put yourself into the shoes of the people that have to endure them continuously.
This is why we need empathy. It isn’t enough to know these biases exist somewhere and are surely a problem, but to avoid interacting with them personally. Pointing the finger at general inequities and calling them “real” doesn’t mean that we aren’t still in denial when it comes to our own thoughts and dealings with people that are somehow different than we are. We can’t allow ourselves to become distant from the struggles of others and to delude ourselves into thinking we can play no part in progress. Listening to other people and caring about them is progress.
As an atheist, my gratitude for having all that I have and being all that I am is not sent off into some wispy oblivion to float about with frivolous wishes and earnest desperation. My gratitude is what reminds me that I am strong and that I have the resources to prevail in my efforts. When my gratitude is flagging, I ask those who care about me for help, and it is their empathy and concern that gives it back to me. This is what I would wish for those who cannot feel gratitude this holiday, or for those who lack it in any aspect of their lives. I would not expect gratitude to be something everyone can have at all times, but it is something many of us can facilitate. Have empathy for the oppressed and for those who struggle in the face of injustice. If you all you can do is listen to their stories, then listen, and tell others the stories that you hear. On a national holiday that focuses on the sentiment of being thankful, it is important for those of us who are to remember why and to not forget those who are still struggling to make that a reality for themselves and others.