Empathy is the Cure to Society’s Ills

Posted on September 10, 2018

I have seen a sign. And I am sorry to tell you it wasn’t a good one. No, don’t worry it wasn’t that kind of sign, it was an actual physical sign, the type you put out on your front lawn. And in six simple words it symbolizes everything that is wrong with our society and the root cause of so many problems in our world today. Yet, it’s a sign that you will see in neighborhoods across the country. And I apologize in advance if it’s a sign that you have yourself put up. I am sure that the people who purchased these signs had the best of intentions. “Drive like your kids live here.” What could be wrong with a sign that encourages safer use of the roads? But listen to the words – drive like your kids live here. This sign imagines that I will only drive slowly, or with due care and attention because of the potential for risk to my children. And in this assessment the sign epitomizes all that is wrong in our society today. We drive one way if our kids live here, but we drive a different way if your kids live here. And the problem is much bigger than the way that we drive. According to the leaders of UC Berkeley’s Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society: “The problem of the twenty-first century is the problem of “othering.” In a world beset by seemingly intractable and overwhelming challenges, virtually every global, national, and regional conflict is wrapped within or organized around one or more dimension of group-based difference. Othering undergirds territorial disputes, sectarian violence, military conflict, the spread of disease, hunger and food insecurity, and even climate change”.1 We live in a world and society where we emphasize the differences between us, ignoring what unites or binds us. As our world and society has become more global we have conversely sought to become more tribal, increasingly limiting the scope of the people we feel a connection to; building walls and fences to keep everyone else out. In his farewell letter Senator John McCain offered this caution: “We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down”.2 When viewed through the lens of difference and contrast we can ignore and reject anyone who isn’t us. This perspective underlines so many of the issues in our world today. It is played out around refugees and policies on immigration, the situation in Puerto Rico, debates about what lives matter and even questions of health care. And we see it in the very art of politics itself. We disconnect from the people with whom we disagree, ignoring them and only listening to views aligned with our own. Because in today’s discourse, it’s not sufficient to disagree with someone; you have to tear those people down, demonizing them in ways that question their loyalty, their 1 http://www.otheringandbelonging.org/the-problem-of-othering/ 2 https://www.mccain.senate.gov/public/ Rabbi Danny Burkeman Empathy is the cure to society’s ills Rosh Hashanah 5779 2 sanity, and ultimately even their humanity. We Jews have seen the danger of what happens when people are dehumanized, and it is a slippery slope we are sliding down together. But there is another way; things could be different. We could live in a society where we drive carefully simply because there are children here and we feel care and concern for them, even though they are not our own. We could focus on and recognize our universal connections rather than always emphasizing differences. We could live in a world where empathy is the driving force for how we behave and relate to one another. When little babies are in a nursery and one baby cries, the other babies will cry in response. They don’t know why they’re doing it, but their brains are soft wired to have that connection and to experience empathy. Neuro psychology and brain research show that we have a natural drive for attachment and affection, we are born to be empathic, but it gets lost somewhere along the way.3 Our five-year-old daughter Gabby has an understanding of empathy. She has said to us I’m going to be sad because you’re sad, I’ll be happy because you’re happy. At its core, empathy is the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions. It allows for a symbiotic connection; my experiences help me to feel an emotional connection with what you are going through. It’s not just sympathy; when I have met people who are in mourning they often will say that they do not want sympathy, they do not want people feeling sorry for them; rather they want a person who will simply sit with them silently in the sadness, holding them – they want empathy. In our Jewish context, the great philosopher Martin Buber wrote of life being built around “IThou” relationships. As he suggested, we have an ability to form authentic relationships when we do not objectify the other, but when we relate to them as a person with full thoughts and feelings, acknowledging them as the subject. Being in relationship leads to reciprocity and connection,4 it is something that each one of us is yearning for: to see and be seen as people. He cautions that when we ignore the “Thou”, when we switch off our empathy, we treat other people as objects, which is one of the worst things you can do, ignoring their subjectivity, thoughts and feelings.5 But when we relate to another person as a real person, seeing them completely, Buber teaches that God resides there in that space between us. Our world is crying out for empathy, yearning for us to see the humanity of every individual no matter how different they may seem. To share in the pain and suffering of others and for it to lead us to a compassionate response. In the 1940s, Johnny “Bull” Walker was a celebrated strongman in the circus, a brute and villain performing for the crowds.6 What no-one knew was that his summer job was simply a way to pay for his life during the rest of the year when he shed the costume and donned the white coat as a 3 See https://www.thersa.org/globalassets/pdfs/blogs/rsa-lecture-jeremy-rifkin-transcript.pdf 4 See “I and Thou – Martin Buber” Walter Kaufmann translation 1996 p.67 5 See “ The Science of Evil” Simon Baron-Cohen p.8 https://www.ted.com/talks/latif_nasser_the_amazing_story_of_the_man_who_gave_us_modern_pain_relief/tran script#t-38380 6 This story is adapted from Latif Nasser’s Ted Talk: “The amazing story of the man who gave us modern pain relief” Rabbi Danny Burkeman Empathy is the cure to society’s ills Rosh Hashanah 5779 3 medical student. He lived two parallel lives; by day he was John J. Bonica – doctor, and by night he was Johnny “Bull” Walker – wrestler and strongman; he was inflicting pain or he was treating it, and this allowed him to change modern medicine. He suffered from his wrestling. He was regularly in the hospital receiving treatment. And then he was there again, but this time to watch his wife giving birth. Witnessing the pain she suffered and the lack of treatment options beyond a few drops of ether, he decided to devote his life to anesthesiology. He knew pain in his own life, he witnessed it in those around him and he was compelled to do something about it. He wrote a book that became known as “the Bible of pain” and because of him, it became a field, something for which all of us should be grateful. As medical historian Latif Nasser said: “Bonica saw pain close up. He felt it. He lived it. And it made it impossible for him to ignore in others. Out of that empathy, he spun a whole new field, played a major role in getting medicine to acknowledge pain in and of itself.”7 We may not have experience of the pain that another person is enduring, but we do have our Jewish traditions creating an imagined experience for all of us. We were slaves in Egypt. Throughout the Torah God reminds us of this fact – it is used as a justification for commandments, an explanation of religious injunctions, and as a motivation for behavior. But we do not read this line as history; instead we hear these words as our story. It is not our ancestors who were slaves, but avadim hayinu – we were slaves. Many of us have grown up in privilege, never worrying about food or shelter, without fear of oppression or persecution; and yet we imagine the slave experience as part of our core identity. We were slaves. We repeat this idea over and over again so that we will view the world with the eyes of slaves, so that we will live our lives with empathy for the suffering that we witness around us. Drive like your kids live here or drive like our kids live here. When I think back over this past year there is one good news story that stands out, not just for the event itself, but for the response it received.8 In late June, we in America and around the world were gripped by the story of 12 boys and a soccer coach who were trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand. By all accounts we shouldn’t have cared. In a country few of us could pick out on a map, children we would never meet who were markedly different from us were facing a perilous situation. And this became the lead story across the globe as we watched, prayed, and hoped that these children would be rescued. We saw their faces, their spirit and we felt a connection; we looked beyond the differences and saw in their faces our children. As a world we experienced a collective feeling of empathy for them and their families. We felt fear as the search for their whereabouts began and hope when the boys were located. We watched anxiously as the rescue mission started and experienced joy at the news of their salvation. There was a miracle in the rescue of these children, but there was 7 Ibid. 8 I am grateful for Jerry Davich’s Chicago Tribune article “Thai soccer team ordeal rescued us from our doubts of the human spirit” which helped me to articulate my response http://www.chicagotribune.com/suburbs/posttribune/opinion/ct-ptb-davich-thailand-soccer-team-rescue-st-0711-story.html Rabbi Danny Burkeman Empathy is the cure to society’s ills Rosh Hashanah 5779 4 an equally significant miracle in the way that they brought our world together; helping us to ignore our obvious differences to focus on and see our obvious similarities. And those parents. We can only imagine how desperate they must have been to see and embrace their children – but they waited, they waited together. The children were not rescued all at once, and as each parent heard that their own child had been saved we can imagine the urge to run to the hospital to be reunited. But they waited. These parents waited because they felt care and concern for the other parents who were still waiting for their children to emerge. They committed not to leave, not to be reunited individually until they could all be reunited. That is empathy displayed on the world stage in all its beautiful glory. Unfortunately, this is but one story in a year which has seen an avalanche of incidents that should bring shame and embarrassment to our world; stories we wish we could forget. If our country, her citizens and our leaders, focused more on empathy how different things might have been. We would not have accepted a situation where power was only restored to Puerto Rico last month, almost a full year after Hurricane Maria tore through the island. We would not permit the negative discourse as our political leaders divide us into them and us, speaking hatefully of those with whom they disagree. And we could never have tolerated that children would be separated from their families on the borders of this great nation. We need to foster and nurture our empathy. Empathy has a tremendous power to change us, our society, and our world – it transformed a white supremacist. Well empathy and Shabbat dinner. Derek Black grew up on the rhetoric and ideology of the white supremacist movement. His father Don created Stormfront, a white nationalist website and his mother Chloe had once been married to David Duke, who became his godfather. He was a leading light within the movement.9 When he moved away from home to begin his College education he kept his views private until one night in April 2011, when his picture was posted on a student message board with details of his racist activities. He was immediately ostracized, ditched by friends and isolated from the college community, he was “othered”. The anger and rage in response to the message was palpable, but it was not productive. Matthew Stevenson, the only Orthodox Jew at the school could have joined with the crowds; he could have posted aggressive messages on the internet and he could have shunned Derek Black. But he didn’t. He knew the dangers of only speaking to people with whom he agreed, and so, he invited Derek to Shabbat dinner. The message he sent read: “What are you doing Friday night?” Derek joined a small group of people and they celebrated Shabbat. They avoided difficult subjects and so Derek returned week after week until he was just another regular around the table. Despite their obvious differences, they treated him as a person and this feeling was reciprocated. Over the following months, he began to open up to his Shabbat friends, they asked him about his views and he learnt about the world from them. 9 The story is taken from https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/the-white-flight-of-derekblack/2016/10/15/ed5f906a-8f3b-11e6-a6a3-d50061aa9fae_story.html?noredirect=on Rabbi Danny Burkeman Empathy is the cure to society’s ills Rosh Hashanah 5779 5 In his final year at the College, Derek decided to finally respond to the post on the student message board. He shared how his views had changed and even sent a letter to the Southern Policy Law Center disaffiliating from white nationalism, apologizing for the hurt he had caused, and giving permission for the letter to published in full. In a podcast where Derek Black and Matthew Stevenson were interviewed they both talked about the power of empathy in their story.10 Sitting around the Shabbat table helped Derek to empathize with people who weren’t part of his in-group, and when this happened his perspective shifted completely – the hate of his youth was transformed. And for Matthew the hope is that the spark of empathy that they nurtured can be replicated elsewhere and transform our world for the better. The power of empathy and Shabbat dinner transformed a white supremacist. And it has the power to transform our society and our world. We were slaves in Egypt is at the core of the Jewish experience because it is supposed to encourage us to approach the world, society and our lives with an empathic disposition; not simply seeing the suffering of another but feeling it and acting because of it. A little girl was late coming home for dinner one night. Her mother angrily demanded to know where she had been. The little girl replied that she had stopped to help Janie, whose bicycle was broken in a fall. “But you don’t know anything about fixing bicycles,” her mother responded. “I know that,” the girl said. “I just stopped to help her cry.”11 We live in a world beset by othering. Where we don’t see the world, but only see our world. Where we ask how something will affect us instead of asking how it will affect others. Where we don’t drive carefully for your kids, but only drive carefully for our kids. We live in a world dangerously low on empathy and we need to change that now. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that when faced with another person’s suffering, people too often ask “if I stop to help this person, what will happen to me?” He posited that the question we should be asking is “If I do not stop to help this person, what will happen to him?”12 I’ve been thinking a lot about that sign. The problem isn’t the six words that comprise it; the problem is one word, “your”. So I fixed it. This year, drive like kids live here. 10 See https://onbeing.org/programs/how-friendship-and-quiet-conversations-transformed-a-white-nationalistmay2018/ 11 https://storiesforpreaching.com/category/sermonillustrations/empathy/ 12 He made reference to this in talking about the Good Samaritan in his “I have been to the mountaintop” speech – https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/ive-been-mountaintop-address-delivered-bishopcharles-mason-temple