A Hope for Empathy

A September 11 memorial sculpture hangs in the Epiphany Peace Garden in Gramercy, New York. Credit: Creative Commons/Matt Green.

As a thirty-six-year resident of New York City, I recently joined my neighbors in a pause to remember what happened to “us” on September 11, 2001. The “us” requires the quotation marks, because no one in a city of eight million neighbors can honestly feel that us-ness day by day. Yet fellow-feeling is the essence of neighborliness, even the essence of being human. Recent genetic research has concluded that chimpanzees and humans share over 90 percent of similar genes but that the chimps are not as gifted in one capacity characteristic of Homo sapiens: a capacity for empathy. They have a little of that capacity (who knows the mind of our monkey relatives?) but in behavior we social humans seem to fall more easily into laughing, crying, and suffering with each other.

On 9/11 we had the brief fortifying message from folk around the planet, “We are all Americans now.” Not blessed with a president who knew how wisely to respond to that world outpouring of empathy, we catapulted into a “war” against terror from which we have scarcely recovered.

One of my links to a more mature response to 9/11 was the work of two psychiatrists–Robert Lifton and Charles Strozier–who have specialized in getting to know victims and perpetrators of great suffering. Soon after 9/11, Strozier undertook to interview over a hundred survivors of the event who were personally shaken by it. His recent book, Until the Fires Stopped Burning (Columbia University Press, 2011) furnishes this reader new confidence for the psychiatric profession’s potential contribution to our common life. Strozier joins Lifton in believing that murderous trauma destroys souls as well as bodies. Mass murder is the greatest destroyer of all. Lifton’s interviews with survivors of the Hiroshima bomb issued in his concept of “psychic numbing,” mental flight from pain into denial of feelings, including feeling for the pains of others. His interviews with the Nazi doctors in Auschwitz uncovered a similar flight in the perpetrators of that horror. Lifton ended his book with a confession of empathy—not sympathy—for those members of his own medical profession: “Would I have been recruitable to those evil deeds?”

The gift of Strozier’s book to readers is his entry into the buried feelings of New Yorkers who were close to that mass murder while surviving it. These are the folk who lost their beloveds in the crash of the twin towers, who scarcely escaped it, and whose world caved in, in one sense or another. The spirit and substance of this remarkable book comes through in this paragraph:

Empathy is the oxygen of psychological life. We cannot breathe without it. Early investigators, such as Freud, thought it was the words that mattered. They missed the music. Anything that supports empathy supports healing, and my quasi-clinical, empathetic method of interviewing 9/11 survivors revealed traumasong [that is, the unconscious sober poetry of suffering]. It is in relation to death that poetry finds its most compelling voice.

bookStrozier’s powerful insights into the lives of these, my fellow New Yorkers, set me to thinking about the mystery of empathy-present and empathy-absent in the politics of trauma worldwide. We know that the Hutu genocidaires of the 1994 Rwanda genocide killed one, then two, then three of their neighbors, and that by the third killing they became inured to the suffering of the victims. They descended into psychopathy. The more one kills, the easier. How could a neighbor of decades turn so quickly to killing?

The Christian New Testament has a name for it: “the mystery of iniquity.” (2nd Thessalonians 2:7) Every victim and student of the Holocaust faces it. Political and religious leaders will have to plumb that mystery if they are to protect us from its devastations. I am not wise enough to offer them an answer to the agonizing Rwandan question, but I am sure that one of the horrors of war is its systematic stripping of warriors and victims of their capacity for mutual empathy. Too late to save them did John Hershey and Robert Lifton penetrate the suffering of those over 100,000 citizens of Hiroshima who perished on August 6, 1945, and afterward. I was seventeen years old that year and was soon to be an American draftee for the invasion of Japan. My generation of Americans breathed a sigh of relief at the Bomb; we didn’t have to go to war. It was even unfashionable in 1945 to voice empathy for the victims of city-bombing in Japan. “They deserved it,” was somehow our common moralistic agreement. Numerous members of the Muslim public must have thought the same of 9/11.

Is it possible to have empathy for one’s enemies in the midst of conflict with them? I keep hoping so. I hope so for the Israelis and the Palestinians, as well as for Americans, Iranians, and North Koreans. To lose empathy for one’s enemies is to lose hope for a humane outcome to war. I think of Israel, the Palestinians, and us American Christians. Widespread in American Jewish circles is the suspicion that many critics of Israel have lost empathy for what Israelis have suffered from Palestinian terrorists. Hoping that it need not be so. I have to number myself among those American Protestants who ask of Israel more evidence of empathy for the costs of the occupation of the West Bank to longtime Arab residents there. I have recently joined the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions-USA, and I am a supporter of Presbyterian divestment from the Caterpillar Company for its bulldozers that Israel uses for the demolition. Why? I cannot avoid empathy for any family in the West Bank who loses its home because one of their number may be a militant or because that home is in the path of a wall or a road designed to protect Israelis.

In world politics, how widely can one’s empathies stretch? Can we acquire credible concern for suffering on all sides of a complex human conflict? The answer can hardly be a self-confident “yes.” It may have to remain a hope and a heart-struggle. But not at least to struggle with the possibility is to abandon some of one’s humanity.

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