On -isms: Empathy

By | Thursday, January 07, 2016 1 comment
I have a post that's been sitting in various forms of draft mode for probably the better part of a year. It's not about comics, but more of a general rant against people higher up the food chain than you and I who have no real concept of what kind of struggles anyone else is dealing with. I've returned to work on that piece several times, but it always seems to turn into an unfocused, old-man-shouting-at-the-clouds rant that doesn't really have a point. I used examples ranging from people I have to work with on a regular basis to Soylent Green.

Rather than try to explain everything I was trying to touch on, though, let's just take it as wrote that, by and large, the people running the governments and the corporations care about you not at all. They don't hate you, or even dislike you; you are just so insignificant to them that you never even enter their thoughts. If you're not pulling down at least a half million every year, you do not rate.

I hate that. Not so much that there's someone out there who feels so superior as to never even consider me, but that any human can be so casually dismissive of another. To think and feel so selfishly that the very notion that someone has a set of experiences different from their own is mind-boggling. I've seen this first-hand.

One thing I've actively tried to do in recent years is cultivate more empathy in myself. Rather than slough off someone's words or actions with cynicism and satirical jokes, I've tried focusing more on what kind of mindset a person might have to be in to say or do those things. I'm not always successful, of course, and I can get maddeningly frustrated when someone is actively dismissing my point of view, but the attempt is to be more empathetic.

My wife has been a big driver in that. She's the most open-hearted, optimistic, forgiving person I've ever met. But she's still only able to offer her perspective on things. I've tried complementing that by reading a diverse selection of comics.

That sounds a little hokey, but I really have spent much of my time over the past several years actively seeking out different voices in comics to better understand different types of experiences. It can be awkward flatly asking even close friends about difficulties and hardships they've faced in coming out, or how they've dealt with being raped, or how they spent their life ridiculed or dismissed because of their accent or skin color, or the practical challenges in transitioning, or what it was like to live homeless on the street for a year, or... By actively looking for creators who use their comics to share those experiences, it not only provides them with a degree of financial support but it helps me to appreciate where people who aren't me are coming from. I can't ever know what it was like to do any number of things because I'm not a woman, I'm not Black, I'm not gay, I'm not Latino, I'm not anything other than the cis-hetero white guy I've always been. But I can at least read about those other people, and absorb their stories. And, in absorbing them, I can better understand why people might act the way they do.

"Oh, so that's what it's like to live with depression!"

"Wow, I didn't realize how body dysmorphia might impact someone who's trans!"

"Wait, so their self-destructive behavior is a result of PTSD from being raped?"

It's easier than ever now to cocoon ourselves in an echo chamber, and filter out any ideas and opinions that don't match our own. And in doing so, that cuts off wide swaths of people from our empathy. If we don't seek to even try to understand them, how can we possibly even sympathize with them, much less empathize? It's innately walling off their thinking, their feeling from our very perception and allows us to dismiss them as non-beings.

I'm not one of New Year's resolutions. I find it's a pretty arbitrary time to try to change something about yourself; if you want to make a change, you have to be emotionally ready for it. And that comes when you've wrapped your head around the whole thing, not because the calendar says it's one number higher than last year. But something to think about might be tracking down different comics espousing different points of view for the sake of exposing yourself to those different outlooks. You could do that in any number of ways of course, but comics' pervasiveness, particularly webcomics, means there's plenty out there to work with, and the visual aspect tends to hit home harder than if you were just dealing with words. So if you are the type that's looking for New Year's resolutions, I might suggest trying out some different comics for the express purpose of understanding people who have a notably different background (and perspective) than you.
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Matt K said...

I think fiction is very important for this. I can't by any means claim a deep understanding of what life is like in black America… but I might not even appreciate that there is a big, different experience relative to my own were it not for e.g. various novels of Walter Mosley.