A couple of months ago Jasper and I were tucked under the down comforter on the "big bed," reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Book six of the Harry Potter series is probably way too dark for a seven year-old, but he has always had a sturdy grasp on the difference between fact and fiction, and he doesn't scare easily. I had just arrived at the part where Dumbledore has died and the members of the Order are huddled together in shock. I looked down at Jasper and saw tears on his cheeks.
"Are you crying, sweetie?" I asked.
He nodded. "I'm crying because Lupin is sad, and he's my favorite character," he said.
And then I cried, too, partly because Mrs. Weasley had just entered the room to discover that her oldest son, Bill, had been horribly disfigured, and partly because it was such a joy and a relief to see that kind of empathy in my son.
Empathy is, Wikipedia says, both the ability to feel what others are feeling and to imagine another's perspective. The American Psychological Association calls it "the trait that makes us human." What empathy is, whether we as a society are deficient in it and, if so, how we can create more of it has been on a lot of minds, including mine, since well before December 14. That grim day, though, has given us all a new sense of urgency.
When you grow up in a house with narcissistic personality disorder, empathy is as rare as rhodium. Which is why, when Jasper was born, Jonathan and I quickly decided that we did not care whether he could do square roots at two or compose a sestina at four or dunk a basketball at ten. All we cared about was that he had empathy. When he was a baby we watched his affect, checking for evidence. Did he cry when others were distressed? As he grew into a toddler we often worked on the cognitive piece, trying to help him understand why Sophie was crying or why Sam had thrown his toys across the room. We both knew, too well, that there are some people for whom empathy is missing. And then when he offered a crying child his stuffed animal, we cheered.
I haven't been able to stop thinking about The Moment. The panicked rush to the school, the wait at the firehouse, the reunions happening all around them until there were forty of them left. Their children's names on a piece of paper. Being ushered into the back room of the firehouse, their minds racing with desperation. Maybe he's hiding in a closet. Maybe she's wounded. Wounded is OK. I'll take wounded. The wait. The prayers and the invocations to God and Jehovah and Allah and the Universe. And then The Moment. The unendurable moment: my child is dead.
There's that moment, and then there's the rest of your life.
I read that the parents' main worry and concern was that their children didn't suffer in their last moments. Were they afraid? Did they know what was happening to them? Every parent who has lost a child has asked themselves these questions. I'm lucky in comparison. I have spent eight months constructing a narrative in which death caught Balthazar unawares and without great pain. I don't know how the parents of Sandy Hook Elementary will be able to tell themselves a story which they can endure.
My intense feelings about the need for empathy and its sorry state in our culture began earlier this year with a spate of tragedies involving children and their coverage on the internet. If you want to retain your faith in humanity you should never ever read internet comments. I realize it's probably unfair to extrapolate the end of civilization from an unrepresentative sample of trolls, but the amount of judging of other people online is stunning.
Marina Krim, the mother whose two small children were murdered by the nanny, was excoriated online for employing someone to help her watch her kids, and explicitly blamed for their horrible deaths. The woman whose children and parents died in a house fire on Christmas Eve was blamed for having a live-in contractor boyfriend who did some work that wasn't up to code and then put some apparently live ashes in a paper bag in the mudroom. The mother of a vision-impaired two year-old who died when she lifted him up to see some African wild dogs and he fell into the exhibit, was tried and sentenced for murder in forums on many sites. How many times did I see the words, "I have absolutely no sympathy for (fill in the name of a person who has suffered a tragedy)". Because of what others perceived to be their errors, their failings, these suffering women had, according to many of their fellows, put themselves beyond the Pale, outside the reach of human compassion.
I can fall into it as much as the next person. When a Kennedy died playing football on skis, I said, well, that was stupid. When Michelle Duggar was pregnant with her twentieth kid despite almost dying with the nineteenth, I shook my head. There's always someone who ties their skateboard to the back of a car, or someone who tries to climb Mt. Hood in the winter by themselves without an emergency beacon. But I'm taking a harder look at myself, and my conclusion is that this kind of thinking is a failure of empathy and a huge moral lapse. Because even if someone made a mistake or suffered a failure in judgment, does that lessen their family's pain? Are the rest of us mistake-free? Whatever happened to "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone?"
What happened in Newtown, CT is that rare event in which it's next to impossible to blame the victims or their families for anything. Those parents sent their kids to school. Those children went to school to read and sing and make puppets out of paper plates and popsicle sticks. They can't even say that security at the school was lax; they had just installed a security system in which the doors were locked and people had to be buzzed in. Still, there are people out there who say the principal or the teacher should have had a semi-automatic weapon. They were at fault for being unarmed.
When I googled empathy, in addition to coming across an adorable YouTube video of
Mark Ruffalo teaching a puppet about the word on Sesame Street, I found that one of the top entries on empathy was Glenn Beck explaining why empathy is bad.
Empathy is bad, he believes, especially for Supreme Court justices, because it might lead her (it was Sonia Sotomayor he was talking about) to take other people's experience into account when applying the law. I always thought that "justice is blind" meant unprejudiced or impartial, but apparently it's supposed to mean without compassion. Justice, says Beck, doesn't look at the guys in the back of the truck being shot at by helicopters, or the children shot to death with semi-automatic rifles.
I watched an amazing video yesterday made by author and philosopher Roman Krznaric that says all of this better than I can, but one of his points is that empathy is potentially revolutionary. Which, I think, is why some people are so afraid of it.
I don't generally do politics, not because I don't think it's important but because I don't think I'm much good at it. I wrote a paper about racism when I was a senior in high school that only got a B+. My mother thought it was self-righteous, and I have no doubt it was. I'm still not over it. But here's my political statement anyway: Everything follows from empathy; empathy is the beginning, not the end.
With empathy for the victims of gun violence, not just the children and educators of Newtown, CT, but the children of inner city Chicago and women who are victims of domestic violence and moms who attend midnight movies and dads who sell products at mall kiosks, we might change our laws. With empathy for the children of Afghanistan who are blown up while collecting firewood, we might change our foreign policy. With empathy we might reevaluate how we fail to treat and care for the mentally ill.
With empathy, Adam Lanza could not have done what he did. Maybe he was one of those people for whom empathy was always missing. Maybe he had a psychotic break. But I hope and believe that for most of us, empathy can be taught and modeled and encouraged.
A couple of months ago my mother said, referring to Balthazar's death, that she was glad that I had not had to confront evil.
"You mean like if someone had murdered him?" I asked.
"I just think that would be so hard to encounter evil," she said. She sounded as if she were comforted by the thought that Balthazar had not died at the hand of another human being. I wanted to say that I was glad for her that she had come to this peace about Balthazar's death, but that her peace wasn't my peace.
When my mother said that, though, she might as well have had the events of December 14 in mind. Except that I don't believe in evil the way she thinks of it. I believe that we make this world, with our actions, our words, our beliefs, our policies and laws. With our empathy, or lack thereof. And that is why it is way too easy to say that Adam Lanza was evil. Adam Lanza was a product of our world. This is who we are? This is what America has become? Is this the country we have bequeathed to our children, asking them to live (and die) in it? It cannot be.
Lupin dies in Book Seven. Jasper will cry. I will cry. I will thank the heavens for the tears that make us human.