I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy lately, and it ties in with something you referred to in your December 1 letter — the concept of “othering.” I guess I’ve been thinking about empathy (or the lack of it) for many reasons. On the one hand, I think of the tremendous outpouring of compassion for the suffering people of Haiti after the earthquake; and on the other hand, I think about the callous attitudes of many powerful leaders of large financial institutions and corporations who seem unable or unwilling to mentally put themselves in the shoes of millions of people who have had to deal with job loss, mortgage foreclosures, and lack of health care in the midst of the current economic crisis.
The Importance of Empathy
A couple of movies I saw recently also deepened my thoughts about how we need empathy in so many areas of life. One film was Amreeka, the story of a Palestinian divorced mother and her teenage son who moved from the West Bank to America in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Their story is so warmly told that I couldn’t help but feel with them and identify with them (what empathizing really means) as they negotiated the struggles that immigrants experience—particularly those from the Middle East in these times of so much fear and suspicion.
The other movie that made me think about the need for empathy was A Single Man, based on Christopher Isherwood’s novel about a single day in the life of a gay college professor eight months after the sudden death of his life partner. As the professor continues to grieve his loss and reminisces about the deep love the two men had for each other in their 16 years together, he ponders how life can go on.
In one of the flashbacks, he is shown receiving the phone call from a relative of his partner who breaks the news of the fatal car crash. The relative says he is making the call secretly, away from other other family members who had no intention of letting the professor know of the tragedy. In the midst of the shock, the professor is also notified that he is not welcome at the “family only” funeral which will be arranged by the partner’s disapproving parents.
Watching the pain on the professor’s face, I remembered other similar stories that have been told to me over the 35 years since I first began writing on this topic in a college textbook chapter, articles, the book Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? and more recent writings. In one case that I heard about, a Christian lesbian committed suicide after constant castigation by her religious fundamentalist parents, who, after her death, made clear to her grieving partner and all the gay friends of the couple that they would not be permitted to attend the funeral. (They had their own memorial service later.)
As I watched that scene in A Single Man, I wondered where is empathy? How could the partner’s parents be so cruel? Couldn’t anyone who has ever lost a loved one try to at least imagine the pain of the grieving partner left behind, someone who had been as close as any heterosexual husband or wife?
Australian folksinger Judy Small once recorded a song called, “No Tears for the Widow.” (It’s on Judy’s 1990 album, “Snapshots,” and although no longer available in earlier formats, it can be digitally downloaded through ITunes.) The song starts out with the story of a woman who loses her husband after a 30-year marriage and receives loving condolences in cards, visits, gifts, and the kind words of people who come to pay their respects and weep with her at the well-attended funeral. Her grief is understood by everyone, and there are “tears for the widow who has lost her love and must carry on alone.” As painful as it is, she is aware of her marital status before the world and sadly begins writing the word widow when she fills in forms.
Then, in the song’s second stanza, Judy sings about another woman who loses her longtime partner after an extended battle with cancer. This time, because the partner is a woman, the grief and anguish of the one left behind are ignored, except for a small circle of close friends. At the funeral, the woman who died is described as a wonderful single woman taken before her time.
But in this second story, there are “no tears for the widow.” She leaves the funeral parlor, goes to the home the two women had shared, and sobs alone into the night. Like the heterosexual woman who lost her husband, she, too, has “lost her love and must carry on alone,” but her grief is not acknowledged. She continues to write “single” in forms asking marital status, while inwardly raging at society’s failure to recognize that she has lost her next of kin. (The song goes on to point out that women in her situation may even lose their home to the claims of the deceased partner’s relatives. Vanessa Redgrave won an Emmy award a few years ago when she played an aging widowed lesbian to whom this happens in one of the short stories on the HBO presentation, “If These Walls Could Talk 2.”)
Why does all this happen? Because, says Judy Small’s song, “marriage is a special word and only meant for some.” As I listen, I wonder again, where is the empathy? Why can’t people understand what the word family really means? As you know, we recently published in Christian Feminism Today the story of a couple whose 35-year marriage was made void by a legal decision about same-sex marriages. And yet those who work so hard to prevent the legal recognition of these marriages (and are upset because some states have decided differently) just don’t seem to get it.
Your December 1st letter was so creative, Kimberly, in linking together the internalized gender restrictions of the Victorian era with the often unrecognized sexist elements in the Twilight books and films today. So I don’t think there’s much I can add to what you wrote there; you’ve already said it so well!
But I want to pick up on something else you wrote in that post because it shows how the empathy I’m discussing here is so often blocked by “othering”—the categorizing of people into “those like us” and “those other people”– people with whom we can contrast ourselves.
For instance, in mid 19th century America, the constricting “ideal” of Victorian, “pure,” white, upper-class womanhood was built upon not being the woman who was “othered”—the lower class working woman, or the African American woman whose body had historically been represented as all-sexual by the power lusts of white slave-owners. (December 1, 2009 post by “27”)
As you indicated, people that we humans place in the category of “other” (“them” or “those people”) may be perceived as different because of race, ethnic background, religion, class, sexual orientation or identity, ableness, body size, age, or anything else that causes us to consider them different from us and therefore perhaps less important, less worthy, less deserving of power and privilege. In other words, differences are easily viewed in terms of hierarchy — “better than,” “ less than.”
Jesus once told a parable about two men who went into the temple to pray. One was a self-righteous religious leader whose prayers consisted of boasting about all the wonderful religious deeds he had done and how different he was from other people. He named the categories of people he was thankful he wasn’t like. Then, glancing toward the other man, who belonged to one of the most intensely despised categories of that society, he added a p.s to his prayer to notify God of his gratitude that he wasn’t like that man over there (“the other” personified).
The man from the despised group, for his part, felt unworthy even to look toward heaven as he prayed, but simply pounded his chest and prayed that God would have mercy on him because he was a sinner. Jesus said it was this second man, not the self-righteous one, who had pleased God. Jesus concluded that “if you put yourself above others, you will be put down, but if you humble yourself, you will be honored.” The Scripture says that Jesus told that story “to some people who thought they were better than others and who looked down on everyone else.” (See Luke 18:9-14. I quoted from the Contemporary English Version [CEV].)
I think it’s a good idea to keep that parable in mind any time we find ourselves tempted to engage in thoughts words, or actions that indicate we are “othering.”
Othering can block empathy by convincing us that another person or group is so different from us that they couldn’t possibly be feeling the way we would feel if we were in the same circumstances. They are therefore perceived as undeserving of our kind thoughts, actions, and identification with them. Somehow our common humanity is forgotten when we engage in othering.
Othering, Empathy, and Gender Issues
The way persons think about each other because of gender differences can also create a negative “us” over against “them” attitude, as you and I have been discussing in this blog from the beginning, Kimberly.
There is no denying some obvious biological differences between women and men. But as we’ve both written so often, those biological differences are too often dragged out as justification for hierarchical arrangements and inflexible role assignments in the home, church, and society. This is done by ignoring how much the sexes have in common as human beings with the needs that all humans have in both thework-and-activities side of life (what sociologists speak of as the “instrumental” aspects) and the love-and-relationships side of life (what sociologists call the “expressive” aspects). I wrote about this in a post on “Human Being, Being Human,” during our first year of this blog, so won’t say a lot more about it right now.
But I started thinking about that again recently as I have seen the recent media attention to a new Pew study that underscored some changes in the economics side of marriage. Data analysis showed that the percentage of husbands whose wives earn more than they do and whose education is higher than theirs increased significantly between 1970 and 2007. And the percentage of women who are married to men whose earnings and education are lower than theirs has likewise grown during that time period. What this means, according to the Pew analysis is this:
From an economic perspective, these trends have contributed to a gender role reversal in the gains from marriage. In the past, when relatively few wives worked, marriage enhanced the economic status of women more than that of men. In recent decades, however, the economic gains associated with marriage have been greater for men than for women. (From the executive summary, by Richard Fry and D’Vera Cohn, Pew Research Center, January 19, 2010.)
Some headlines in the popular press have given the impression that it’s all about men seeking rich wives, with “sugar daddies” being replaced by “sugar mammas.” But the trend really just indicates that increasingly the conventional marriage agreement is changing. It used to be that (pardon the old cliché) husbands brought home the bacon and wives cooked it. Now more and more couples, whether by choice or economic necessity, are finding they have entered a new marital bargain in which both spouses bring home the bacon (maybe a vegetarian version or turkey bacon to avoid raising cholesterol!) and both symbolically share in the cooking, as well as parenting, and other household responsibilities. As long as it is their mutually-decided arrangement, it doesn’t really matter who earns the higher income — or even which of the two spouses, at any particular time, might have to be the only income earner. What is really tricky is that there still needs to be an equitable bargain or exchange so that one person doesn’t end up being both the primary earner and the primary person taking care of the household.
Even though vast societal changes are taking place in that regard, many of the issues that you and I have so often discussed here on 72-27 continue to be very hot topics — especially when it comes to ideas about gender-based division of labor, conflicts between career demands and household tasks, and traditional expectations from church and society. For an extreme case that illustrates the problem, check out this letter from a young wife and the accompanying comments that were posted just this month on“The F Bomb” (“F” for feminist) — a feminist blog started by a teenager for and by young feminists.
Facing Changes in Our Lives with Empathy
Change can be scary and unsettling, and changes in gender roles seem especially so. And once again, this is where empathy comes in. Years ago, I wrote an article for Christianity Today magazine titled, “How to Live with a Liberated Wife (June 4, 1976 issue). (I recently discovered that portions of it have been included in The American Women’s Movement, 1945-2000: A Brief History in Documents, by Nancy MacLean, Bedford/St. Martin’s Press, 2009.) I was writing in the heyday of the women’s movement (then often called “women’s liberation movement”), which later came to be referred to as “second wave feminism.”
As a literary device, I wrote the article in the form of a letter to a young husband whose wife’s feminist ideas were frightening and confusing to him. I called the husband “Doug” and his wife “Jan.” The couple were a composite of many Christian men and women who had expressed these anxieties to me during my speaking engagements. In the article, I was trying to help men to understand what their wives were going through as they said they wanted to go to college, or finish an interrupted degree program, or take a job, or simply expressed their feelings that they couldn’t feel fulfilled unless they could look forward to something more than a lifelong career as a housewife. It wasn’t that they didn’t value caring for a home and family, but they wanted something more than that identity alone, and they wanted the chance to live up to their full human potential just as their husbands wanted to live up to theirs. These were big issues back then and considered revolutionary.
My article was basically encouraging husbands to engage in empathy and put themselves in their wives’ shoes, and I based my article on various Scripture passages. If we are to practice the Golden Rule of doing unto others as we would have them do unto us, we need to try to understand how we would feel ifwe were dealing with what they are dealing with and then think about how we would want others to respond to us.
Empathy as a Two-Way Street in Close Relationships
Soon after the article was published I received several letters, but one handwritten letter struck me especially. It was from a real life “Doug,” though of course that wasn’t his name. “When I identify with Doug,” he wrote, “I feel fear, uneasiness, anxiety, and I feel alone: ‘Will Jan pull away?’ ‘Doesn’t she need me anymore?’ I cry out to be understood. The situation is changing. Our lives are changing.” He went on to describe his feelings of frustration:
You didn’t speak to my needs and fears but to Jan’s; you didn’t attempt to explain my bondage, but how women have been bound. . . . I believe there is no essential difference in the dynamics of male and female personality and potential. I do have the same feelings as a female has, but our society labels me ‘unmanly’ when I express them. . . .Letha, I, a man, need love, understanding, and someone to speak to my conflicts and fears. I, also, need help in becoming all I am meant to be.
My heart went out to him in his emotional pain, Kimberly, and of course I sent him a personal reply with further thoughts and some books he might want to read. But his uneasiness demonstrates that empathy needs to work both ways in a close relationship. That isn’t always easy, but it can go a long way toward closing the gap between the perceived “otherness” of women and men, because rigidly prescribed roles and expectations imposed from the outside hurt both.
Well, it’s time for me to sign off, but before I do, I want to apologize to both you and our readers for not keeping up my end of the conversation by writing this post earlier. As you know, in the time since my last post here, not only have you and I both had holiday travel and additional professional and academic writing responsibilities and deadlines to attend to, but I have also had two cataract surgeries as well as publishing the latest issue of Christian Feminism Today, writing a new edition of “Web Explorations for Christian Feminists,” and updating the EEWC-CFT website, which I hope our readers will visit – especially to see your thoughtful review, Kim, of Where Am I Wearing?
I’ll be looking forward to your next letter and any thoughts you have about what I’ve written here. I hope your studies at Yale are continuing to go well and that you’re finding a little time to relax amidst the pressures.