Finding empathy has been on my mind this holiday season. I often recall one of my favorite quotes from Atticus in “To Kill a Mockingbird”: “First of all, if you learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view ... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Numerous philosophers and famous people have attempted to define empathy. None has captured it better than Atticus has. As we close out a year of deadly pandemic, destructive weather and political insurrection that threatened the very heart of our democracy, no human emotion deserves more of our attention than empathy for one another.
Most of us spent the year wondering why we do not understand half the country or how they think. We grumble to our own tribe: “The other side is not rational; they never make sense.” Rather than take Atticus’ advice on empathy, we have used the pandemic as an excuse to stay physically and emotionally distant. We cocoon in social media with our comfortable self-serving opinions. After all, it is much easier to stick with those who agree with us than to risk entering the cold, dangerous world and trying to understand the positions of others.
Perhaps the first step in seeking empathy is to gain some perspective. Before progressives vilify all Trump supporters and anti-vaxxers, or conservatives attack those who brought Joe Biden to the White House and criticize mask mandates, pick up the New York Times “Year in Pictures 2021.” Take time to view the photographic summary depicting the millions of humans who suffered unfathomable tragedies. After spending a moment contemplating each photograph, the disputes tearing us apart politically seem rather inconsequential by comparison.
Many of the photographs highlight the pandemic. As we close out 2021, over 800,000 Americans (500 in Washington County) and almost 6 million individuals around the world have perished from COVID. The loss felt by each family in their own unique cultural, ethnic and religious context is the same heart-breaking grief. The photographs record open crematoriums in India, stacked bodies in East Los Angeles and football-sized cemeteries in Brazil. To feel empathy for each family who must carry on is what makes us human.
The photographs go on to chronicle the natural disasters that killed tens of thousands around the world and left many more homeless. In America, the weather events seemed endless. The forest fires in our drought-stricken West that get worse every year. Rising sea levels causing the collapse of an upscale condominium in South Florida. A winter storm that overwhelmed the power grid in Texas. Hurricane Ida coming ashore as a category 4 storm in Louisiana. Most recently, the destructive power of unpredictable tornadoes in Kentucky and neighboring states.
We need each other to repair the damage and to move forward as a nation and as responsible members of the international community. Differing political views are healthy and are the foundation of a working democracy. However, such views cannot be permitted to stand in the way of compassion for those who are less fortunate or who have suffered loss. We must never lose the ability to have empathy for and to seek understanding from those with whom we disagree.
Returning to the chronology of photographs, many are depictions of brave individuals attempting to gain democracy or enforce their civil rights. Russians rallying in support of the jailed opposition leader who challenged President Vladimir Putin. Protestors seeking a return to democracy clashing with security forces in Myanmar and in Hong Kong. Rebel soldiers closing in on the capital in Ethiopia. Veiled women teachers trying to keep schools open for girls in Kabul, Afghanistan. A portrayal of one of many Chinese reeducation camps, where millions of Muslim Uighurs are interred and subjected to severe human rights abuses. An impromptu celebration on the streets of Minneapolis following the conviction of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd.
We should all pause and permit these photographs that illustrate political violence and civil rights violations to be seared in our memories. Our democratic republic is not guaranteed. There are reasons that democracy flourishes in some nations but falls to authoritarianism and anarchy in others. Our system of government is hardly the natural order. To make democracy work, we need empathy and understanding for all the political, social and cultural differences America has to offer.
Empathy is the opposite of anger and helps us reunite fractured communities. Empathy has the power to bring together people who would otherwise never meet to make our diversity a positive force. It has the ability to teach us, to heal us and to reach us in moments of isolation, when we think nobody understands, in times of illness and natural disaster.
In short, empathy is exactly what we need as we enter the new year and continue to face the perils of a pandemic, severe weather and political upheaval.
Gary Stout is a Washington attorney.