The Transylvania Times -

Pedro A. Sandín-Fremaint Gives Speech-Brevard NC

 

Dr. Pedro Sandín-Fremaint talked during last week's "Empathy" event. (Times photo by Park Baker)

Editor's Note: Pedro A. Sandín Fremaint gave the following speech at the Lutheran Church in Brevard recently:

A six-year-old girl in nice clothes stands alone in the city of Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia. Strangers approach her to inquire who she is, if she's alright, where her parents might be. Later, the same girl, now dressed like a waif, stands in the same spot. No one approaches her; she is ignored by the passersby. The scene switches to a restaurant, where the girl, once again neatly coiffed and dressed, takes a seat at the table of strangers. She is welcomed with questions of concern and invited to partake in the food. Same girl, again in the role of street urchin, enters the same restaurant and sits at a stranger's table. She is shooed away, and eventually is asked to leave the place.

At the public library, watching the video again in silence, I am appalled.

A person walks toward the area where I am sitting. I can't tell if it is a man or a woman. As he or she approaches, it becomes evident that it is a man. Or is it? He or she is dressed in what strike me as clownish clothes, with red leggings under multicolored short pants. His or her hair is died pink, and he or she wears an earring. "What in the world?" – I think. "Is this a transgender person?" I ask myself. "What could possibly possess someone to show him or herself in public looking like that?" is my last silent question, before I am struck by the irony!

Why was I able to empathize so readily with the little girl and censure the callousness of those who shooed her away only to, seconds later, be unable to put all judgment on hold before this person whom I could not fit into an acceptable category?

What is empathy? What are its requirements? What stands in its way?

Of the many understandings of "empathy" that I found through a cursory google search, my favorite is perhaps this rather poetic take attributed to Alfred Adler: Empathy is "seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another, and feeling with the heart of another." In other words, empathy requires that we put ourselves within the frame of reference of the other. It would appear, then, that empathy is impossible without imagination. As a father and grandfather, it was not hard for me to imagine my loved ones in the place of the little girl in Tbilisi. But, my imagination faltered before the person at the library. It was much more difficult to imagine myself within that person's frame of reference.

But, is imagination enough or is it rather a prerequisite of empathy, necessary but insufficient? I believe that Frederick Buechner gets it right when he comments on the Golden Rule: "If we are to love our neighbors as ourselves we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as with our eyes, that is to say like artists, we must see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces. Here it is love that is the frame we see them in."

Thus, it would seem that empathy is a form of imagination framed by love. Now, let us not be confused. We are not talking here about a sentimental, touchy-feely love, but rather about a kind of love that is a resolve, a will, a determination to approach the other with fairness, respect and compassion.

Now, is there anything new in this; anything we don't already know? I dare say that most of us, if not all, have been brought up in one or another version of Christianity. As such, aren't we inheritors of a tradition that puts the other, especially the suffering other, at the very center of our faith? Is there anyone here who would dispute the centrality of empathic love to the Christian faith? Why are we then, over 2,000 years after Jesus' witness, so far from living the Golden Rule? What part of "love your neighbor as yourself" have we not understood? How could this faith devolve into indifference and distrust; worse yet, into the horrific display of hate by groups like the Westboro Baptist Church, whose official website is godhatesfags.com?

Note how hate places itself between God and fags, between God and this other whom the members of this church cannot understand, whose very identity they have reduced to a four-letter word, in whose place they are unable to put themselves. There is no resolve here to stand before the other with fairness, respect and compassion.

Even presuming the best of intentions, there are still major obstacles to empathy. A first could be an insufficiency of imagination; the incapacity to put ourselves in the place of the other. Another could be what I would call the reduction of the other, be it by belittling or even demonizing, thus depriving the other of all nuance, all complexity, all mystery. Yet another obstacle might be the magnification of the self.

Argentinian philosopher/theologian Enrique Dussel can help us to understand the error involved in depriving the other of mystery and complexity.

In a brief book that is almost nothing more than an outline, The Philosophy of Liberation , Dussel invites us to distinguish between the concepts of "world" and "cosmos." Cosmos refers to the totality of that which is or exists regardless of whether we know it or are even capable of knowing it. The concept of world, however, is everything that is or exists within the horizon of our culturally determined and personal reality; everything that we know or think we know. Quarks, muons, neutrinos, the elusive Higgs boson are all in the realm of the cosmos, although perhaps also within the horizon of understanding of a few nerdy physicists. Everything that we can see in this room is part of the realm of our world. Should we transport this room in its entirety to some distant place and bring into it a group of natives who had never had contact with our world, they would most likely feel like they had entered a bizarre, exotic, mysterious realm. To them, this room would belong, at least initially, to Dussel's concept of cosmos.

Building on these understandings of cosmos and world, Dussel reformulates the concept of metaphysical as referring not to that which lies beyond the cosmos, but rather to that which lies beyond our culturally and personally defined world. In the arena of theology then, the metaphysical is not what lies out there in the vast perhaps unknowable cosmos, but that which appears to us from without our world. The encounter between Native Americans and Europeans in the late fifteenth century was such a metaphysical moment. Neither the Native Americans nor the Europeans had the tools to place themselves within the frame of reference of the other. Thus, the ones simply assimilated the others within the confines of their own world. The Europeans belittled the Native Americans, reducing them to savages. The Native Americans magnified the Europeans, seeing them in some cases as gods. We all know the tragic, bloody outcomes of this encounter.

Dussel looks to his Christian faith to ponder the spiritual significance of such encounters. For a faith that affirms the mystery of the Incarnation, of a God who adopts the frame of reference of humanity, a God who becomes a human being, such encounters have metaphysical import. He refers to them as "the epiphany of the other," and affirms that there is not a more metaphysically pregnant occasion than this one. In other words, everything is at stake when we come face to face with another human being! God is not to be found out there in the unknowable reaches of the cosmos, but rather much closer, in that very difficult to bridge horizon beyond our cultural, personal or internal world, beyond the self, beyond the ego.

Novelist Jonathan Franzen has said that "love is about bottomless empathy, born out of the heart's revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are." It would appear that the opposite of love is narcissism. Psychologist Erich Fromm makes this explicit: "The narcissistic orientation," he says, "is one in which one experiences as real only that which exists within oneself." Thus, to the narcissist the self is the measure, the criterion, the filter of all reality. Narcissism is the ultimate magnification of the self.

The narcissist is blinded by the clarity with which he perceives everything. There is no mystery to ponder, no hesitation or reticence to consider. There is no introspection, because the narcissist has no doubt about the self. The self is the measure of all things, a measure applied without hesitation in the appraisal of the other.

Now, before we gleefully rush to identify all of the narcissists that we know, be advised that there is, at the very least, a little narcissist in all of us! To use Peggy McIntosh's metaphor, we all carry an invisible knapsack in which are packed all kinds of norms, views and assumptions about ourselves and others, as well as unexamined privileges.

The anecdote about my bewilderment before a person whose gender I could not perceive should make it sufficiently clear that there is in my knapsack a norm of sorts that makes binary sexual identity a requirement for perception. I was unable to see this person without turning alternatively to masculine and feminine nouns and pronouns. This norm that I carry almost unconsciously in my invisible knapsack, reduces an androgynous other to an optical illusion! How can I empathize with a person whom I can't even perceive adequately? I am again reminded of Buechner's words: "If we are to love our neighbors as ourselves we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as with our eyes, that is to say like artists..."

My doctoral dissertation was a theological reading of four novels by Haitian author, Marie Vieux Chauvet. Many who asked what I was writing about were bewildered by the information conveyed in my previous sentence. Some asked "from which Asian country?" And I had to clarify: Haitian, as in Haiti, not Asian. Others, like a group of young Dominican students I met at an academic conference in Quebec, readily understood what I meant by Haitian, but could not conceal their amazement at the notion that Haitians could read and write at all, never mind well enough for anyone to study their literature.

During the research process, I discovered that there is in Haiti a hierarchy of color that entails all sorts of privileges and prejudices. The ideal in this hierarchy is to look as white as possible while still having black blood. Ironically, it is this black blood that entitles you to an identity as a Haitian. In Haitian Creole, the word for "man" is "nèg," which is the same word for "negro"!!!

Regardless of the role black blood plays in the very identity of a Haitian, however, the ideal carried in their knapsacks is light skin and straight hair. You may imagine, thus, how offended the elite light-skinned mulattoes were during the American Occupation (1915-1934), when the invaders failed to distinguish them from ordinary blacks and to allow them into their social clubs! Yet, many of these light-skinned mulattoes could readily turn around and look at their dark brothers and sisters with contempt!

My author, Marie Vieux Chauvet, one of the first to write about the horrors of the Duvalier regime in Haiti, was lucid enough to avoid a simplistic binary diagnosis of the evil she witnessed. There is no stark distinction between they and us in her novels, no easy pointing of fingers, but rather a painful, heartbreaking look into the self-serving assumptions and views of the elite to which she herself belonged, and also into the darkness that can take residence in any person's heart. Thus, as an epigraph to her last novel, Les Rapaces, she constructs a variation of the nursery rhyme The Farmer in the Dell:

The bosses?

They were hungry

For money

So, to make the most of it

They drove

The cat

To eat

The rat

The poor

To eat

The cat

The police

To eat

Their fellow man

In other words, there are many, many forms of otherness; and thus many, many occasions to test our capacity for empathy. This is not just an issue of race or gender; it seems to be a human condition that may well reach way back to our tribal past or even be rooted in the very origin of the self. Isn't the other, after all, the looking glass for the construction of the self? Don't we always define ourselves in opposition to the other? No, the other does not have to be someone from an antagonistic group or from some exotic culture; the other can even be our brother, as attested in the ancient myth of Abel and Cain!

Going back to Peggy McIntosh's metaphor, it would seem then that the knapsack is not some secondary addition, but rather an integral part of our very humanity. Addressing the issue of "white privilege," in a long, thoughtful response to a white friend who would like to know what white privilege really is, Lori Lakin Hutcherson, Editor-in-Chief of Good Black News, produces a list of examples. One of these is related to her experience as a young black girl who has just been admitted to Harvard University. She identifies three separate encounters with white strangers that still annoy her to this day:

The first was the white doctor giving me a physical at Kaiser: Me: "I need to send an immunization report to my college so I can matriculate." Doctor: "Where are you going?" Me: "Harvard." Doctor: "You mean the one in Massachusetts?" The second was in a store, looking for supplies I needed from Harvard's suggested "what to bring with you" list. Store employee: "Where are you going?" Me: "Harvard." Store employee: "You mean the one in Massachusetts?" The third was at UPS, shipping off boxes of said "what to bring" to Harvard. I was in line behind a white boy mailing boxes to Princeton, and in front of a white woman sending her child's boxes to wherever. Woman, to the boy: "What college are you going to?" Boy: "Princeton." Woman: "Congratulations!" Woman, to me: "Where are you sending your boxes?" Me: "Harvard." Woman: "You mean the one in Massachusetts?" I think: "No,... the one downtown next to the liquor store." But I say, gesturing to my LABELED boxes: "Yes, the one in Massachusetts." Then she says congratulations but it's too... late. The point here is if no one has ever questioned your intellectual capabilities or attendance at an elite institution based solely on your skin color, that is white privilege.

You may think of yourself as the nicest, least racist and most compassionate white person in the world, and maybe you are, but you will never stand in that line and hear the teller ask if the Harvard that you will be attending is the one in Massachusetts.

Needless to say, Blacks too carry their knapsacks, where one might also find unexamined assumptions about Whites, Latinos, Asians, etc. However, when what we carry in our knapsacks is supported and bolstered by power and privilege, a situation arises which often leads to abuse, exploitation and manipulation of the other. This is precisely why the call "All lives matter!" is self-evident and barely requires utterance, whereas the plea "Black lives matter!" is poignant and crucial.

However relevant it may be to any conversation about empathy in this country today, the race issue is at least in the forefront of the national debate. But, what about the social class issue? I find it interesting to note how this issue is almost a taboo here! It seems to run against our deepest sense of nationhood. This is the Land of Opportunity! To speak of social class is counterintuitive in a country that holds as a self-evident truth that we pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. In an article entitled "Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person," Gina Crosley-Corcoran argues precisely with Peggy McIntosh about the ways in which her understanding of white privilege fails to unpack the very concept of white by ignoring social class. Although Crosley-Corcoran ultimately agrees that whiteness alone does confer a set of shared privileges, she writes:

...there are so many more points in [McIntosh's] essay where the word "class" could be substituted for the word "race" which would ultimately paint a very different picture. That is why I had such a hard time identifying with this essay for so long. When I first wrote about White Privilege years ago, I demanded to know why this White Woman felt that my experiences were the same as hers when no, my family most certainly could not rent housing "in any area which we could afford and want to live."

As a Puerto Rican American citizen, I could build a list of things that I cannot expect from fellow citizens:

• I can't expect that they will be aware that Puerto Rico was invaded by the United States in 1898, and taken over from Spain as war booty.

• For that matter, I can't even expect them to know where Puerto Rico is on the world map, or that they will not confuse it with Costa Rica.

• I can't expect that they will know that we are indeed citizens of the United States, nor that citizenship was given to us in 1916, right in the nick of time for young Puerto Rican men to fight in World War I.

• I can't expect that Puerto Rico will be of interest to the press not only when the Zika virus threatens to reach the "mainland" or when we're undergoing a major economic crisis that threatens the pockets of American taxpayers.

• I can't even expect the Weather Channel to follow the routes of hurricanes that threaten our island, unless they pose a threat to the "mainland" as well.

What sorts of unexamined norms, expectations and privileges do we, citizens of Transylvania County, carry in our knapsacks? What kinds of encounters with others do we experience that would test our capacity for empathy?

One such encounter might be between natives and outsiders. To look at some of the historical photos available around town is to realize how much Brevard has changed in the past forty years or so. It has grown significantly; it has so much more to offer the visitor. When we look deeper into this development, however, we need to recognize that this growth, with all of its attractiveness for outsiders looking for a better life or a better tourist destination, has led in many instances to a great deal of loss on the part of the natives. As an outsider, I must try to be sensitive to this sense of loss; I must exert my imagination in order to empathize with those for whom the very reasons that brought me here have led perhaps to a feeling of dispossession.

Yes, empathy is not easy. It is rather quite a tall order! However, in a world which seems to be getting smaller and smaller, where the epiphany of the other, of an ever more exotic other, is becoming a more frequent experience than ever before, we must cultivate empathy as perhaps our only real possibility of survival as a species. And this need for empathy goes beyond our fellow human beings. It must encompass the entirety of the planet!

How, then, are we to proceed? There are no recipes, no twelve easy steps. There is no science of empathy that could stipulate clear rules to follow. Before this enormous challenge to see with the eyes of another, listen with the ears of another, and feel with the heart of another, we must practice a great deal of humility. We must realize that we are often at a loss to put ourselves within the frame of reference of the other. I am reminded of a particularly beautiful scene in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince. When the little prince breaks down over the loss of his beloved rose, the pilot-narrator expresses his own sense of helplessness: "I did not know how to reach him, how to catch up with him... The land of tears is so mysterious." It is this discreet, respectful presence before the mystery of the other that we must strive to learn!

I recently had the privilege of reading an essay by our own Reverend Mary Hinkle Shore. I would like to quote from it: "We steward people and relationships within Christian community as we show up for one another throughout our lives and at their end. We accompany one another. Sometimes accompaniment means going to soccer games when we have no idea how the game is played. Sometimes accompaniment means helping to carry the belongings of a refugee family up three flights of stairs."

In other words, we must strive to build a community of empathy. We must realize that the challenges and urgency of empathy cannot be met alone. We must practice to stand in humbleness before the other –whether their otherness is based on the color of their skin, their gender, their ethnic origin, their religion or whatever- recognizing that we may never really know what it means to walk in their shoes.

But there is yet another hazard in the practice of empathy: its slippage into condescension, quite a stealthy operation of the ego. We must be careful to realize that true empathy does not look down on the other, does not patronize him or her. Empathy is about recognizing in the other a bottomless reserve of dignity that calls first of all for respect and for putting judgment on hold. Yes, it is about seeing with the eyes of the other and feeling with their hearts, but it is also about allowing yourself to be approachable, even vulnerable, in your own eyes, your own ears and your own heart. Empathy is about shared humanity.

The reverend Stan Mitchell, pastor of Gracepointe Church in Nashville, makes this difficulty explicit:

I am still racist, chauvinistic and homophobic. To undo Jim Crow laws, give women the right to vote or extend full privileges to the LGBT community - this is not the end of bias but only the beginning of the work. It is the insidiously HIDDEN systemic & subconscious ways we demean other children of God that remain our most challenging work. Let us go on by honestly, courageously, humbly & gratefully praying, "Search ME oh God & show ME if there be any wicked way in ME."

Indulge me to close these words with a final anecdote, this one concerning my son, who is a fourth and fifth grade teacher in New York City. A young Taiwanese girl joined his classroom in the middle of the semester. She knew absolutely no English, and sat silent in class, surely feeling isolated and intimidated by everyone and everything around her.

Have you ever been in a room where everyone else speaks a foreign language that you don't understand? It comes through as a string of meaningless noises that you would be totally incapable of domesticating with spaces between discrete words, with periods, commas or semicolons. So, the same language that gathers everyone else in the room together into a community of understanding stresses your alienation and solitude.

My son, who had ventured earlier in in his life into some Mandarin lessons, approached the girl and whispered "Wǒ zhīdàole," which in Mandarin Chinese means "I understand now." Two tears rolled down her cheeks. And thus began her integration into a new community of empathy and understanding.

 
 

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