It’s natural to dislike things we don’t understand and it is easy to not understand people that are different than us. It can be difficult to develop an appreciation for different cultures. In the same way, it can be difficult to develop an appreciation for different socio economic groups. If you live in a suburb you might not like something someone living in a city does and vice versa. Different segments of the population solve problems and meet their needs in different ways.
Empathy is the attempt to put yourself in the position of the person you are thinking about. An essential question to ask yourself when attempting to be empathetic, is what would have to have happened to me to make me respond physically like the person I am looking at. Another question could be how did they arrive at the conclusion that this was the best way for them to meet their needs?
I have to be really careful about what I say here. That’s probably why I am struggling to find the words to write. I have seen some truly odd things in my fourteen years living here. I have seen things that are confusing and scary and don’t seem logical. Don’t get me wrong, I have seen a lot of amazing things as well. I have to be careful not to first say something racist because that would defeat the purpose of this post, but I also want to make sure I don’t over generalize something to give you, the reader, the impression that a certain behavior is inundating my neighborhood or is indicative of African American people in general. Maybe I should just apologize in advance and tell you that I am sorry if anything I say is offensive. All I am attempting to say is if you were to hang out in my neighborhood for a little while it’s pretty likely you would see some things that would require you to have an empathetic lens in order to not be upset with the person.
Let’s look at two scenarios and ask a couple of questions.
Here’s the first one:
There is a group of 5, 40ish year old men drinking at 9 in the morning on a porch on the other end of the block on a random Tuesday. It’s really easy to look at that and judge. It’s natural to think why aren’t they at work and don’t they have something better they should be doing. I guess it’s excusable to judge them a little. I was a teacher for 13 of the last 14 years which means I didn’t work at a job in the summer time. I was either renovating something or hanging out with my kids, especially when they were younger. When you have off in the summer you are instantly moved into a different lifestyle. You can be 33 years old and have a two and a half month vacation, and because of that, you see what goes on when you are normally at work. Let’s say on that particular Tuesday, I was headed to the grocery store at 9 and they are out there already. I see them on my way home and then again when I run out to Home Depot to buy drywall or something. I notice the group then and then again after I am done working for the day. When I see them there again on Wednesday and Thursday and all of the following week and the week after that, it would be easy to be pissed and think they are a bunch of bums that sit around and get hammered all day while I “work”. I’d see them as lazy and probably a drain on society or some stupid statement like that.
If I were to look at them with an empathetic lens, I might start asking questions like how does someone get to the point where that is an appropriate way to spend their time. How disenfranchised with the idea of working does someone have to be to resign themselves to getting plastered early in the morning and still be getting after it in the afternoon? What would a life be like that revolved around being intoxicated so early in the day? What societal structures exist that would allow someone to make a decision like that? What happened in that person’s life that made them think this was a good enough idea to act on it, and why was there no pressure to change? It doesn’t make it ok, it just deflects the disgust away from the individual and moves it more to a system or a structure.
Here’s another example. You are stopped at a stop light and a car pulls up to the right of you. The drivers window starts to roll down and out is tossed what looks like a full McDonalds bag of trash. The window goes back up and the driver pulls forward through the intersection 15 seconds before the light changes to green. As someone who picks up a lot of trash and as someone that is concerned about safe driving, both of those things bother me. I would have a hard time not thinking the person was a worthless piece of shit. I mean the person just violated two basic norms; keep our shared spaces clean and maintain order as to promote safety on our roads. Both of those are choices to operate outside the norm. It takes energy to roll down the window and throw the trash out. It takes more energy to run a red light than it does to just wait for it to turn green.
Ok, so we have a person that operates outside of the societal norm and has blatant disregard for cleanliness of communal areas and is more concerned about arriving at a destination slightly faster than normal. Questions like, what experiences would you have to have had to have no appreciation of the clean neighborhood would be one to consider. This person clearly doesn’t see value if keeping trash off the ground. They might even see the neighborhood in a similar light to the McDonalds bag – trash. Let’s just say for hypotheticals the person lives in the neighborhood. What would it be like to live in a place that you thought was trash? How would you treat it? If you knew that you were never going to “get caught” for running a red light, would you do it all the time? And if you did run red lights all the time, what does that say about how you interpret the police presence in your neighborhood? I don’t run red lights because I am scared of getting caught just as much as I am worried about causing a crash. If I am not worried about getting a ticket for running a red light, what other small crimes or violations would I be more likely to commit? What type of life experiences would make me want to regularly break the law?
When you approach a situation you don’t quite understand or one that might be mildly irritating with empathy, it can sometimes show you spaces where injustices exist. You start to see things that aren’t ok. It isn’t ok that we let a couple of men in their 40’s get to the point where they give up on working. Somewhere along the way, we, as a society in general, failed them. The same is true for someone that thinks it’s fine to add trash to the piles already accumulating on the side of the street. Somewhere that person learned it was fine. There is a reason those two scenarios happen more prevalently in my neighborhood than others and it isn’t because we have a higher population of people incapable of holding a job or following social norms. There is something else going on. Using empathy when you see someone do something you don’t understand allows you to start noticing injustices and gives you clues in how we can help to create actual change. The lack of access to jobs that provide a livable wage, the deterioration of the housing stock in my neighborhood, and the lack of enforcement of traffic laws are as much or more to blame than the individuals drinking in the morning or running red lights. When we realize this, we are able to funnel our energy toward social change, rather than getting caught up on the actions of a small group of people.