The Case for Empathy

by Gyasi Byng November 22, 2016

In the last 48 hours, I've started this blog post, started this blog post, and started this blog post.

As the hours went on, it became increasingly difficult for me to write something that wouldn't seem polemic or alienating. I'm not one of those writers that can divorce my writing from my context. My hope was that I could give those who are processing, something akin to balm; I know that in order to do that I must acknowledge the wound.

Right now it seems we're standing on the precipice of . . . I don't know what.

None of us do.

Some believe that this is the era of hope. Some think this is the end. Depending on whom you know, some say to pray for our country while others want to watch it burn. Some are completely disillusioned by the America they thought they knew while others had their beliefs confirmed. I'm currently wavering between the two.

But I'm a writer.

Because of that I'm going to try to figure out how to press forward using words, the most powerful things we have at our disposal as human beings. Let's not forget that with a few words God spoke an entire world into existence. He created people and animals and microbes from his words.

Our words matter.

They build, and they destroy.

They are masons and atom bombs.

When I was trying to figure out how to write this blog, I looked to my favorite writers for inspiration. This time around, Elie Wiesel and Philip K. Dick reached out to me. They are two entirely dissimilar writers: one was a Holocaust survivor, and the other was a science fiction writer. Yet they both spoke poignantly about what people are capable of, our capacity for goodness and evil, and our ability to feel empathy and indifference.

In a speech to then President Bill Clinton, Wiesel warned of the cost of indifference, of turning a blind eye to suffering. Indifference is easy. Indifference helps us to enjoy a glass of wine and have a good night's sleep. However, indifference, as Wiesel points out, will eventually deaden us to everything. Indifference is not the ability to suppress a response: it is the complete absence of a response.

Philip K. Dick's novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? posits that empathy, the ability to feel another's suffering as one's own, is the emotion that separates human and artificial life. It is the quality that makes us human. Not happiness, sorrow, elation, rage, or bitterness. Empathy: Our capacity to feel the happiness, sorrow, elation, rage, or bitterness of another.

Thinking about these two authors and considering this blog post, I decided to make a case for empathy.

Whether we mourn or celebrate, let us have empathy for those around us. Let us not see joy and harden ourselves against it. Let us not see grief and scoff at the circumstances that bore it.

Indifference does not solve problems, and I would argue it is the worst way we could sin against one another. We may claim that indifference, not acting, not being moved is no crime, but I tell you that not feeling anything towards a person in turmoil is a denial of the humanity that is common to us all.

Indifference is the most effective way to dehumanize. Indifference tells us that another is not even worth notice.

Do not forget that when Jesus felt God to be indifferent to his suffering, it was that despair that made him cry out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

Do not forget that the first thing Jesus did when he met with a grieving Mary and Martha was to weep with them.

Do not forget that the first thing Eliphaz, Zophar, and Bildad did after Job lost his children, his flock, and all of this possessions, was to weep with him.

Do not forget it was the Samaritan who empathized enough with the traveler to help him.

Do not forget that we are commanded to empathize, to "mourn with those who mourn." (Romans 12:15)

Hebrews tell us to "Remember those in prison as if you were bound with them, and those who are mistreated as if you were suffering with them." (Hebrews 13:3)

Whether you are proud of your country or feel betrayed by it, I ask that we do not let this become the era of indifference. Empathy requires that we put others before ourselves, which can be challenging if we feel that we have always come second or not even placed at all.

But try.

Remember the power of your words and the humanity of those around you.

Notice them.

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Gyasi Byng
Gyasi Byng

Author

Gyasi S. Byng lives in Rochester, New York. She is PhD student at the University of Rochester where she teaches a writing course on robotics and human identity. She received her MA from Florida Atlantic University and her BA from Palm Beach Atlantic University. Her recent publications include “I Have Never Been Strong” in Open Minds Quarterly, “In the Waiting Line” in Apogee: Reclaiming the Margins, and “Beige Girl Problems” in Rivet: The Journal of Writing That Risks.



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