From the time I was a little girl, I loved reading. The open pages of a book could take me outside of my suburban neighborhood to any place in any time period. In my mind, I no longer had to be Jennifer, but, instead, I could be Susan discovering a new world with her siblings through the back of a wardrobe. I could imagine that for a moment I had a fiery temper and was not afraid to stand up for myself as I dropped into the life of Anne Shirley. I could be someone else, experience something new by imagining myself in the shoes of those who walked the pages of the novels I read.
I enjoyed identifying with others. I wanted to know what made others tick, why some respond with love when others respond with hate. I wanted to feel what others felt so that I could broaden my own horizons. As a young, white Christian girl, I knew my worldview was extremely different from some who might even sit a few rows down from me in class. Through my adventures in reading, I realized that many of the emotions I experienced–fear, love, insecurity–are common to all of us. However, that worldview helped shape our different responses to those emotions.
When my classmates and I in Mrs. Beal’s Language Arts class began discussing whether George was right to kill Lennie in Of Mice and Men, many of the Christians immediately responded ‘no.’ How could it ever be okay to take another life? However, Mrs. Beals drew out discussion from us, prompting us to look at why George would make such a decision. What did he think would happen to Lennie if Curley and his crew got to Lennie first? Would Lennie have been scared? How would Curley have killed him? Certainly not in the way George did, allowing Lennie’s last thoughts to be on the beautiful future they had planned together. Certainly not quickly and painlessly.
I did my best to empathize. What decision would I have made if I were George? Sure, the Bible says that we shouldn’t kill, but when I put myself in George’s place, felt the love he had and concern for Lennie, the decision didn’t seem so easy anymore.
As an adult, sometimes I wish I could grab the other adults who fill my Facebook feed and put them in a room with Mrs. Beals and a book. Today, I read an article by Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention urging Christians to consider the hateful message the Confederate Flag displays. And then I made the mistake of reading the comments.
“Southern heritage,” “Southern pride,” “I display the flag, but I didn’t shoot anybody.” I read through rationale after rationale as to why South Carolina should keep the flag flying. Eventually, I got to the comments that didn’t even try to hide the racism embedded in them. I stopped when I realized I had tears in my eyes.
Thirteen years ago today, my husband and I were married in the church from his youth. The reception followed at a hall not far from the ceremony, and we had a wonderful night of good food and dancing. Missing from the reception, however, was a cash bar, or any alcohol for that matter. While I would have enjoyed a glass of wine or champagne to toast our joyous occasion, Matt and I decided early on that we would keep the reception alcohol-free. Both sides of our family have dealt with the consequences of alcoholism.
When I look at a glass of wine, I see a drink. I am reminded of anniversaries and special occasions. When some of our family members see a glass of wine, they see abuse. They see fighting and drunkenness and broken relationships. It doesn’t matter that Matt and I have never abused alcohol and drink rather infrequently, anyway. If we would’ve toasted to the beginning of our marriage with a glass of wine, we would have immediately caused some of those we love the most a flood of negative emotions. Thirteen years ago, we had every right to have a glass of wine at our reception, but we chose to empathize instead.
Yes, the Confederate flag is just a flag. However, it’s repeatedly been used by those who want to spread a message of hate. Whether the flag was used 150 years ago in a war for states’ rights (one of those rights being the right to enslave people with black skin) or 50 years ago as a symbol of the fight against segregation or just a few days ago as a statement of the twisted ideology that led Dylann Roof to murder nine people, that flag has been adopted enough as a message of hate that many can’t look at it and see anything else. Some, however, seem unable to put themselves in others’ shoes and see the world from their point of view.
Today, the issue is the flag, but tomorrow we will have something new that can divide us. I only wish we all had the chance to practice our responses with Mrs. Beals and a book. However, I’ve studied under another teacher who gave easy instructions that I don’t always follow: “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31). The Golden Rule. We teach it to kids, but we don’t always follow it ourselves. It’s easier to live for self, to not take the time or the energy required to try to experience the emotions that another could be feeling. Oh, how I wish we would try!
The thing about empathy is that it doesn’t require that I change my religious beliefs, my political affiliation, or my group of friends. It does require that I put aside my need to be right for the right for someone else to be heard. It requires that I do less talking, less commenting, and more listening.
Sitting at my desk in ninth grade, I learned more than the plot to Of Mice and Men–I learned about humanity and our common experience. To borrow from another great book, I tried to follow the advice of Atticus Finch and walk around in someone else’s skin–at least during class when we were discussing books. I trust that if I had the capacity to empathize at age 14, a teenager in the midst of adolescence and all that encompasses, there’s hope for the rest of us now as adults.