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Experience and Empathy

2008 July 7
by Julie Clawson

I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy and experience these past few weeks. I am fully aware how my access to a top rated hospital and health insurance saved mine and Aidan’s lives. Even as the medical bills pile higher and higher, I know that without on demand imaging services and easily available medications things could have gone much differently. I am beginning to understand (a little) of what most women in the world face when they bear children – the uncertainty of if they or the child will even survive.

It’s one thing to intellectually acknowledge the need for better health care around the world, I am discovering it is another thing altogether to attempt to imagine oneself in another’s position. I knew the need for equity before, but my experiences have helped me to empathize. I know I am lucky and privileged. I don’t desire to trivialize or cheapen the plight of others by claiming to truly understand, but I am a firm believer that empathy is necessary if one is to truly care and make a difference. And experience helps with that.

This message hit me recently in two ways. In the first I saw how experience and empathy can be betrayed by selfish interest and in the second how the hurting can be betrayed by our lack of experience. In the first instance I watched with incredulous sorrow as John McCain denounced the Supreme Court’s decision to offer basic legal rights to prisoners of war. It has pained me to watch this former POW compromise his convictions over the past couple of years as he panders to what he assumes the voters wish to hear. The empathy his experience once gave him for those suffering similar abuses has been traded at the alter of greed and selfish ambition. He abandoned the call to care for the Other with compassion and now looks to secure his own desires. His experience has been betrayed and its lessons squandered.

The second message came to me as I was re-reading one of my favorite fantasy series. In this instance the main character has just managed to rescue a group of women from essentially sex slavery. These women were given money to help establish new lives after the horrors they had faced. Thinking on this, the protagonist mused, “There are many things wealth cannot buy, and most of those are enumerated by philosophers who have never woken wondering if this day would be their last. It pleased me to know that the survivors… would, at the least, not have to worry about buying bread” (Jacqueline Carey, Kushiel’s Avatar, p.463). That idea struck me as it reminded me of the number of times I have heard calls for monetary charity argued away with just such philosophical excuses. Those who have not experienced starvation or the horrors of life often think we are doing others a favor by not making them dependent on outside aid or by offering them spiritual (not physical) help. Our lack of experience prevents us from truly being able to empathize with them or see their true needs. Sure, perhaps money cannot buy happiness, but basic survival needs must be met before happiness can even be considered. In these areas perhaps empathy should always be promoted before sophistry.

I’ve heard it said that learning to see things from the perspective of the other is the highest and hardest form of development. It takes a lot to put aside the self and beginning to understand things from another’s perspective. Yet the irony is that our own experiences are often what help us to learn how to empathize in such ways.


8 Responses leave one →
  1. July 9, 2008

    I agree that empathy is vital to truly care about issues that matter and to make changes. And our life experience helps to empathize.

    Unfortunately, it isn’t enough to have limited experience. It seems that we need to live others’ experience on a regular basis to truly empathize. Time seems to allow empathy to fade. John McCain is a perfect example of that. Would he denounce the court’s decision if he were a POW 5 years ago instead of 30 years ago?

    On the other hand we truly have to live our own lives. It’s a hard balance. But if we truly cared about an issue, we would stay close to it in our life experience.


  2. July 10, 2008

    Wow Julie! Your condemnation of John McCain is almost palatable. I would guess he would not state the reasons for his position the same way you do. Disagree with the man’s position but leave the character assasination to lesser minds.

  3. July 11, 2008

    Sorry – I didn’t mean to offend. But honestly I used to really like McCain, but as he has changed his position/story over the past couple of years on issues like this I have begun to like him less and less. Same thing with Obama – it seems like politics is forcing them all to abandon convictions they used to express.

  4. July 11, 2008

    Absolutely and expressed like that I have NO Problems with what you’re saying. I didn’t really have a problem with your original post until I got to the traded at the alter of greed and selfish ambition part. I understand the disappointment and frustration when a political leader changes positions on issues s/he once championed. People sometimes loose sight of the forest for the trees and make little compromises that snowball into bigger ones. Our voices of support need to be louder when they take courageous though perhaps unpopular stands as do our pleas to stay true. I meant to get back here before now and admit that I was probably being too harsh in my criticism toward you as well. I am usually incredibly impresses with your well thought out points of view and your probing insights si please forgive my sharp edge.

  5. January 2, 2011

    Interesting, I wonder whether McCain could still feel empathy for the prisoners of war on making that decision and chose to make it due to more emotive drive to tend to the public or whether the empathy had left simply due to passing of time not being enveloped in his former experience. Or whether his original decision was made due to a differing understanding of what the public wanted at that time.

    Forgive me if I am getting obvious facts about us politics wrong, I’m from the UK.

  6. June 12, 2014

    Today, I went to the beachfront with my children. I found a sea shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter
    and said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She put the shell to her ear and screamed.
    There was a hermit crab inside and it pinched her ear.
    She never wants to go back! LoL I know this is entirely off topic but I had to tell someone!

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