Reflections II

By Cynthia Reiss

A treasured mentor from Salzburg highlighted another salient point for me while being back…

what is the role of empathy in globalization? 

This is dear to my heart as I often resist that word when talking to my students. The term is used generically and hastily, yet in my mind it continues to illustrate the divide between the haves and the have nots. In one of our thematic groups at the conference we discussed spirituality and religion on college campuses. One of the major tenets of that group was that though definitions and understandings of religion and spirituality are varied and complex, there exists four fundamental components to all religions: empathy, compassion, forgiveness and acceptance. (I am not sure these four tenets as unifying links are as unproblematic as it seems; yet, nevertheless, these were the four that were offered and agreed upon in the group)…of them all, I was intuitively not at rest with “empathy.”

Partly because it was a word that was used quite a bit at the session, but for two :  Chuck who was very careful not to use the word (as he relayed to me after the session) and Jochen who, in our post-seminar communications,  articulated exactly what I had been feeling throughout the week.

Throughout my life, I can recall the multiple times that empathy was underscored as a means of understanding the poor, the other, the over there somewhere. Empathy, as an act/gesture, was viewed positively in contradistinction to sympathy which was patronizing. Yet, at a certain point, empathy–in my mind–became paradoxically benign and evil simultaneously:  In an effort to understand and “feel” the other’s pain/trauma… we read about, watch, educate ourselves on the tribulations of the other…through our televisions, our coffee shops, our libraries…our zones of comfort. When we understand intellectually, feel momentarily, we commend ourselves on being empathetic to situations of others over there somewhere.   It was Levinas, the anti-empath, who radically changed this word for me and compelled me to think about the implications of such a gesture. Having realized later in my undergraduate life that other– as used by my parents, peers, and cohorts– is in fact Other–and all the discourses that that brought to the table, I began asking different questions, reorienting myself to this new knowledge.

One of the main questions I pose to my students has much to do with a change of perspective: in all the years I have tutored inner-city kids or homeless people at soup kitchens,  often, I have done so from the vantage point of  “helping” that person/those people. At some point,  I learned and am still learning that this ego of mine must be humbled. Who I am to presume such a hierarchical vantage point?
It is I who must learn from them: to move from empathy to understanding.
The question is no longer how I can help them? how and what I can teach them? But to put myself in a position where they can they teach me. Once I  allow myself to occupy this uncomfortable, humbled position, I just begin to understand that I gain far more than I  could ever have gained in the other implicit, unconscious “master-slave” relationship.

How does this relate to global citizenship?  my ruminations continue to ask questions out loud about what ethical responsibilities we have as part of this global world,  what hard questions we must pose in order to further understand the world we live in, and to what extent do we bring this knowledge into our lives? At what point is knowledge understood so that it becomes part and parcel of how we live our lives? Or, alternatively,  does it just remain a way of justifying/intellectualizing our empathy?

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