Today, I reread an excellent post called "Empathy Heroes", written by Roman Krznaric and which appeared in the Yes! Magazine in November of 2014. It was so refreshing to read this post again, especially after signing my quota of petitions today. "Empathy Heroes" paints a sad picture of our world, one which seems to have far too many cruel people in it. In one example, a man dragged a small dog behind his truck. In another example, an elephant in Vietnam expired after complete exhaustion from providing rides for visitors. In yet another, a young bear with a ring in his nose is forced to dance for people who have no sense of kindness and compassion. Krznaric's list goes on and on.
Roman Krznaric also wrote a book entitled "Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It" which relates the accounts of five extraordinary people who experienced what he calls "experiential empathy." These people didn't just imagine someone else's life. Instead, they immersed themselves into the lives of those who they felt deserved empathy.
Here is a condensed version from Krznaric's account of those five people who took empathy to the extreme. Because they did, they were able to transform the social and political landscape of their time.
Not surprisingly, St. Francis tops his list. Krznaric relates something about him of which I wasn't aware until now. In 1206, 23 year old Giovanni Bernadone went on a pilgrimage to St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. There, he quickly noticed the contrast between the opulence within St. Peter's and the extreme poverty of the beggars sitting outside. It didn't take him long to ask one of the beggars to change clothes with him so that he could spend the rest of the day begging for alms. Rightly does Krznaric call this one of the first great empathy experiments in human history. How many of us would even think of doing as St. Francis did?
Krznaric writes that how empathy for the poor led St Francis to found a religious order whose mission was to work for the poor as well as for the lepers. Those joining this order were also to give up their worldly goods to live in poverty like those they served. Yes, I love this about St. Francis but Krznaric fails to mention his great empathy for the birds of the air, the fish in the sea and the animals on land. In my opinion, there are many people who may well empathize with the suffering human condition but comparatively few who feel deeply and empathize with the ever prevalent issues of animal suffering.
2. BEATRICE WEBB
Born in 1858 into a family of well-off businessmen and politicians, Beatrice Webb nevertheless became interested in researching urban poverty. In 1887, her dedication to this research led her to dress up in the clothing of the poor so that she could find employment in an East London textile factory. With this first hand experience, she wrote "Pages From a Work-Girl's Diary" which caused a quite a sensation at the time.
3. JOHN HOWARD GRIFFIN
I had heard of John Griffin before just as many of you probably have as well. At least, he is a contemporary to many of us. In 1959, this white Texas-born man wondered what it would like to be an African American living in the segregated Deep South. And so, with the blessing of the Sepia monthly magazine editors who sponsored this experiment, Griffin dyed his skin black using both sun lamps and pigment-darkening medication. He then spent six weeks traveling and working in Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia and South Carolina where no one ever guessed of his deception.
Of this experience Griffin wrote: "Working as a shoeshine boy in New Orleans, he was struck by how white people stared through him without acknowledging his presence. He experienced the everyday indignities of segregation, such as walking miles to a place to use the toilet, and was subject not just to verbal abuse but to the threat of physical violence. "
John Griffin wrote a best selling book called "Black Like Me" wherein he reflects that if only we could put ourselves in the shoes of others, we might then become aware of the injustices of discrimination and every kind of prejudice to humanity. What a beautiful truth and what a beautiful man.
4. GUNTHER WALLRAFF
In 1983, Gunther Wallraff, a German investigative journalist, spent two years undercover as a Turkish immigrant worker. Krznaric considers this venture of Wallraff's one of the most extreme immersions of the 20th Century. Wearing dark contact lenses and a black hairpiece, Wallraff adopted a broken German accent and then labored through a succession of back breaking jobs. He unblocked toilets on building sites that were ankle-deep in urine. He shoveled coke dust at a steel factory without a protective mask. These jobs would leave him with lifelong chronic bronchitis. Of this experience Wallraff wrote that it was not the 19th century working conditions but rather the humiliation of being treated as a second class citizen by "native" Germans.
Later, Wallraff wrote a book about these apartheid-like conditions which he, as well as other foreign workers in Germany, had experienced. This revelation led to criminal investigations of firms using illegal labor and resulted in improved conditions for contract workers in several German states. Gunther Wallraff's work demonstrated the power of experimental empathy for uncovering social inequality which could be later used by other investigative reporters.
U.S. product designer Patricia Moore used empathy to cross the generational gulf. In the 1970s when she was 26, she dressed up as an 85 year old woman to discover what life was like as an elder. To do this she used makeup that made her look aged. She put on fogged-up glasses so she couldn't see properly and wrapped her limbs and hands with splints and bandages to simulate arthritis. Moore even wore uneven shoes which made her hobble.
I smiled at her description of an 85 year-old because I am an octogenarian. However, I am glad to report that it doesn't describe me. My glasses aren't clouded and I do not need wraps for my limbs and hands because, thank God, I do not suffer from arthritis. I believe it is my vegan lifestyle which has spared me this suffering. And while my gait is slow and measured, I don't think I "hobble." Of course, I imagine her depiction of an 85 year-old then is perhaps a pretty accurate for many elders today.
I admired Patricia Moore greatly because for three long years she used this disguise trying to function everyday while walking up and down subway stairs, when trying to open department store doors and attempting to use devices such as can openers with her bound hands. She exhibited well what the ravages of time does to us and as my mother would often say -- Old age is no joy.