the source of empathy

So, I just read Kimberly's post where she referenced Veronica's post that made very funny fun of this ridiculous article.

And I was put in mind of a conversation we had the other day with my friend, N., who was born and raised in DC, but whose parents are Nigerian. She was remarking that it is only her American friends who make remarks like, "I never understood what it was like to have kids until I had them." Part of it is culture and upbringing-- in N.'s extended family the younger folks were expected regularly to involve themselves in the lives of the small children of their siblings and cousins and so forth. N. has been babysitting since she was eight, and still frequently watches her cousins' children. She has never, even as a young single professional, seen fit to cleanse her life of children.

But N. is unusual in America, I think. So many young professionals-- especially in the ambition-soaked DC area-- go weeks and weeks at a time while having no contact with young children, even in a restaurant or other public place. This is partly because they live in expensive urban centers which are unaffordable for most families, and partly for other reasons.

But I think the larger issue here is about the failure of the moral imagination.

During that same conversation with Kimberly and N., N. brought up the remark common in feminist circles, some variation on, "Well, I know I couldn't possibly presume to understand where you're coming from because we have different experiences of the world." N. called this a cop-out, and I agree with her. Mostly it's earnestly meant, arising from a desire not to over-impose our own interpretive grid on someone else's actions or words.

But. The reason I think that attitude is also a cop-out is that the source of empathy is not shared experience, or at least not primarily. The source of empathy is the imagination.

This is why reading and hearing good, engaging stories from a young age is so important (or part of why, anyhow)-- allowing ourselves to be involved in the lives of characters with lives very different from our own cultivates the habit of mind wherein we learn identify with the Other. We do this primarily with our imaginations.

So when Roiphe drones on about how uninteresting mommy talk is, what she is doing is refusing to exercise her own imagination. Interest, like taste and like affection, is not something that we either have or don't, or something that we passively receive-- it is acquired and cultivated. As members of a community, we are to some extent ethically obligated to cultivate an interest in the lives of others. This interest, along with a well-trained imagination, is what leads to empathy.

Similarly, when I hear or read the childless whine about having to endure the screams of someone else's child on an airplane or in a restaurant, I always want to say, "Babies are only more upset when they sense their parents are upset. If you really want to defuse the situation, try OFFERING TO HELP instead of grousing and stressing them out further."

Well, that, or "You better watch where you wave that there sense of entitlement-- you're liable to poke out an eye."

Because entitlement is also what this is about: the idea that we are always entitled to dinner party conversation that we find immediately interesting, or silence on an airplane, or only pleasant muted noise in any given public sphere. Or whatever. When we cling to that sense of outraged entitlement, and refuse to put ourselves for a moment in the place of another, we are seated firmly at the center of our own universe.

What a miserable place to be.


Kimberly said...

Right ON!!

Being a parent knocks the sense of entitlement right out, if YOUR parents didn't do it first....

I mean, if we aren't careful, some politician is going to go and say that everyone has a "right" to a vacation, because vacations make people happy. Oh wait. Someone DID say that.

Mary-LUE said...

Standing ovation from here in my house in So Cal!

I could go on, but it wouldn't be articulate in any way. So I'll just stand here in my house clapping.

Kathleen Marie said...

Fabulous! This is the best thing I have read in a long time. Where a sense of entitlement came from for anyone for any reason is beyond me. Call it what it is - pure unmitigated self-centeredness.

I have told my children many times - the universe does not revolve around you - you need to be an active part of the world.

But now that three our out on their own, the choices and decisions they make is theirs and theirs alone.

Beck said...

I've known so many people who literally could not imagine any way of viewing life that was in any way different than their own. It's always frustrating talking to these mental shut-ins, trying to get across to them that their experiences do not actually compromise the totality of life.

Hairline Fracture said...

I couldn't agree more--you articulated your point so well!

M. Robert Turnage said...

Your argument would be stronger if you made a place for children within your blog post. As it is, you seem to strike a hypocritical stance arguing for a space for children while at the same time, not allowing for children to participate in the argument.

I strongly suggest you add the following text between paragraphs 4 and 5:

"MOMMY mommymommymommy I WANT A TRANSFORMER! Please please please pleasepleasepleaseplease please please I'll be your best friend I'll do anything I'll hold my breath WAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!"

Julie said...

Oh, Sherri. This was JUST what I needed to read today, and I agree with every word. Thank you!

Wendy said...

A sense of entitlement! That's it exactly! Thanks for articulating it in a way I never thought about.

a Tonggu Momma said...

Well stated, Sherri. Absolutely well stated.