A Rant about Empathy
When I was in grad school and about to become a college teacher, an older more experienced teacher gave me some very potent words of wisdom. "Shane," she said, "never teach a story or a poem that you really love. Your students will just shit all over it." Now, it's pretty obvious that this is a figurative expression, as I'm sure most students have toilet paper at home, but it's also pretty true.
Since I've been teaching for 4 1/2 years, Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried has been "boring and redundant," Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man has been "stupid," and some of my favorite poetry has been described as a waste of time. I still teach it, though--all of it--because I think those stories and poems are important, even if 18-22 year-olds think it's dumb or boring to read about actual human suffering.
This morning I taught "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" by Ursula Le Guin. In short, it's a story that is set in a town where everyone is happy and no one suffers ever. They have no need for a lot of the laws and social structures that we are all familiar with because they are all so happy.
However, this happiness is all predicated on an undisclosed arrangement the town has made with someone or something. The only way the town can remain joyful and painless is for one child, a scapegoat, to be held in captivity and treated poorly. He/ she is malnourished and psychologically abused in the basement of a building in town. The happiness of the majority depends on the suffering of this one, poor child.
When the people of the town reach a certain age, they are taken to the child so they can see the reason/ vehicle for their happiness. Then the people of Omelas have to decide whether to stay, knowing their happiness comes at the expense of another's misery, or go, knowing that to leave is to live a normal life filled with uncertainty and suffering.
The story is obviously a parable/ allegory for injustices in contemporary society. It speaks directly to how we are able to live our lives knowing that there are people who suffer. In a capitalist society, one may argue, we must have a lower class in order for there to be an upper class. We are so willing to actively ignore injustice in order to live comfortable lives. I'm guilty. You're guilty. We all are on some level. We don't like to think of the kid in the basement, or the tent city in the poor part of town, or the gangs that roam the streets--banded together for a sense community because their other community rejected them.
But the students in that class didn't shit on that story. They responded pretty well to it, and they picked up on the themes pretty quickly, and we had a nice conversation. But yesterday, in another class, a student confessed to me that she didn't know what topic to address in her op-ed.
For the assignment, I asked students to consider the issue about which they could not remain silent--the thing that makes them angry or sad or distraught or whatever. This student admitted to me that there is not a thing that makes her sad for another person because those injustices don't effect her. She knows they exist, but they don't impact her personally, so there is not emotional reaction.
And I realized that for maybe the first time in my life, I had met a citizen of Omelas. In every way, she said to me, "I am aware of the pain and suffering in the world, but it doesn't bother me because I am not in pain and I am not suffering." She has been shown the abused and neglected child in the basement beneath the streets of Omelas, and still she chooses to stay.
I wonder, though, if she's very different from the rest of us. Is it that she's just the honest one? Don't we all have a cause? Don't we all want more for the people we share the planet with, or at least for the planet itself?
I don't know, man. I'm not asking for anyone to fix anything by themselves. I just want somebody to feel something. I think we're in real trouble if empathy is something that is foreign to us.