Empathy as Existential Maturity

I’m listening to a podcast (“This American Life”, episode: Are We There Yet?) about refugees being housed in big camps in Greece. The reporter was going around interviewing Syrians in one Greek camp, and got into a discussion with a Syrian man who said his 5 year old daughter has psychological problems because of the trauma she experienced in Syria as a result of the civil war there. A rocket fell on their house, killing her sister and grandmother. And now the little girl can’t be left alone at all or she panics. She doesn’t go outside ever, and, heartbreakingly, has no friends in the camp. A precious, innocent little girl, scarred for life and without any other little friends to play with. When he said that, I had to stop what I was doing, sit down on the edge of my bed, and just fucking cry. That shit destroys me.

The human mind has a well known tendency to group other people together based on ethnicity, religious affiliation, nationality, etc., and pin various attributes on the group as a whole; reducing every individual within that group to mere *representatives* of that group, and not as wholly unique human beings in and of themselves. Immigrants and refugees get this all the time; and in fact a current candidate for US president has rooted his entire candidacy in this base tendency of the human mind. But no one is free from the compulsion to group and stereotype different people; regardless of political ideology.

This is why it’s important to go out of your way to try and understand human beings from any marginalized or “Otherized” group *as human beings* and not caricatures of their group stereotypes; to put in the intellectual and moral work of consciously deconstructing this tendency within your own mind by listening to stories such as the above story about a little Syrian girl. Or listening to a desperate father from Honduras explain why he came to America illegally. Or listen to a trans person as they recount all the daily struggles and every day indignities they have to face just to exist as the person they truly are. Etc. Getting down to the specific details of individuals and their experiences is essential in weeding out the “group stereotype” tendency that exists in your own mind.

This is empathy. This is our social and moral obligation to our fellow human beings. The suffering of an innocent child anywhere in the world is the suffering of all intelligent, sentient creatures. And if we can, to some extent, take the suffering of others and internalize it into our selves, we strengthen the bonds of solidarity. It may cause us pain and confusion and despair at times, but there is also something deeply connective and dignified about it. There is something existentially mature about it.

The moment I can no longer cry or be moved emotionally by the suffering of innocent strangers is the moment I am no longer fully alive; something essential and meaningful will have died within me and within the world. I hope that moment never comes.