Cultivating the Intellectual Discipline of Empathy: How We Hear the Narratives of Others

Posted: 3 December 2012 in Faith and Life

This post (with minor modifications) was published by the Davis Vanguard (a local newsblog in my town)

I attended a community gathering in our town on Saturday called “Breaking the Silence of Racism”—an uncomfortable event in which we told and listened to painful stories with our neighbors in our and other cities in our county. As I listened to the vignettes (each speaker was limited to about 3 minutes to share their stories), I began to consider not just the content of each but how each struck me in terms of how “real” they sounded to me.  In other words, I began to examine how I was hearing the stories.

When I heard the story of a white man my age (a man I know and respect) about how his biracial grandchildren were verbally abused in by students in the local school system, my throat clenched and my heart raced.  As the man nearly broke down, I felt I might do the same.  As a grandfather of two (very young) biracial grandchildren I could feel his hurt, anger and confusion and I accepted both the validity of his story and the pain that went with it.

But what of the stories of the Hispanic mothers who told of their confusion and doubt about whether the county criminal system could offer their sons justice or whether they might be treated differently if they were white?  What of the story of a leader in the Hispanic community who questioned whether a white young man would have been shot for fleeing from police during a stop for which there was no apparent motive (or whether a young white man would have even been stopped)?  How did I hear these stories?

In the first case my life experience had prepared me to receive and validate the story.  And the second case?  Well, in fact, there was a kernel of a story tucked deep in the back of my mind that was finally dredged to the surface as I sat there and heard the stories of doubt and anger about our local legal system.  So… here is my narrative and how it conditioned my ability to hear:

I was raised in rural Pennsylvania and taught from a young age that I could trust the police—that they were there for our protection.  In fact, my mom used to tell me when we took the (rare) trip to the “city” that if I ever got separated from her I should simply find a policeman who would help and protect me and get me back to her.  I never had any reason to doubt the fundamental goodness of the police.

And then, when I was 18, on a rainy Sunday morning on a slick back road my car slid across the yellow line head-on into an oncoming vehicle.  Though not badly hurt I was taken to a hospital where I learned that a woman in the other car had died.  Soon after ,the police showed up, read me my rights and began to ask me questions—kindly, sympathetically.  I answered all of them through tears and in the end simply broke down in the arms of one of the officers and said something like “it was my fault, I slid into them.”

Months later the summons arrived in the mail along with several charges including homicide by vehicle.  Confusion combined with trauma as I headed to a preliminary hearing in which the officer who had interviewed me told of how I had admitted it was my fault, how I had driven recklessly and how I had acknowledged using a drug the morning of the event (true, I had very bad complexion and was on an antibiotic for my skin).  I was stunned.  The person who I had been taught to trust had cleverly twisted my words to set me up for a conviction that would change my life.*

I do not tell this story to suggest that police officers are unethical (though I believe that one was).  I do not tell it to suggest that our criminal justice system is “broken.”  I only tell it to say that that experience changed forever the way I view the police.  It was not followed by any systematic set of bad experiences with the police but it has made me wary of how I communicate with them.

So when I heard the stories of doubt about the justice (or injustice) inherent in our system on Saturday, my own life experience created a space for me to understand—to validate—the concerns within each one.

There were other stories on Saturday for which I had no life experience that permitted such a validation and I must acknowledge that a part of me discounted—or perhaps tended to discount—what I was hearing.  But I also realized that while I will never embody the reality of the Hispanic moms, a single experience in my life opened a door for understanding and accepting their narratives. If this is the case then perhaps I can accept that the stories I cannot personally relate to are also valid and real.

The point is that the act of accepting requires structuring our thoughts to willingly hear the hurt and pain experienced by another and validate it even if we cannot fully relate to it.  To me this means that empathy (for that is what I am really talking about here) is not some vague emotion that causes us to gather in a circle for a group hug after all the stories have been told.  Rather it is an intellectual discipline that, carefully cultivated, helps us welcome the pain in others and give it meaning.

If we want to be the kind of community that faces its own broken spaces in productive ways I would suggest that empathy is an intellectual discipline we must cultivate.

* To allay any confusion I should note that, in the end, I was not found guilty of any charges.  After over a year of court appearances the judge in the case ruled that the incident was an “act of God” and all charges were dropped.  Nonetheless, the whole thing was life altering.

  1. Bill Habicht says:

    Wow. That is a really, really powerful story Robb. Empathy…”helps us welcome the pain in others and give it meaning.” Thank you for such a raw and honest reflection Robb. Would you be willing to let us re-post this entry on our blog ? We would most certainly put a link back to this blog.

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