Mar. 1st, 2014

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In the comments to this article at the Atlantic (which is stunning, and heart-rending, and you should go read it) people were talking about empathy, and how it fails, and why, and how that leads to tragedies like this. How tribalism blinds people to the humanity and worth of those they do not perceive as belonging to their tribe. How the toxic narratives we are fed-- have been fed, for centuries-- reduce people to rough sketches of stereotype and make it easy to treat them as threats. How the people who do that are not punished-- are even rewarded-- and how that reinforces and entrenches this brokenness in our society.

And I was reading along, and nodding along in agreement, and a strange thought popped into my head. I thought, out of nowhere, Thank God I'm Jewish, and thank God I grew up a reader. And after I had that thought, I had to sit there and pick it apart for a minute, because on the face of it that was a weird thought to have.

But this is what I meant: I was lucky to grow up in privileged circumstances. Some people who grow up privileged have a hard time with empathy, because there's no cost to them for lacking it. I'm lucky because my circumstances were such that I learned empathy early, and it stuck. Which is not to say that I am without prejudice, that I am not the product of a biased and broken society. But I was given opportunities to understand that people who are different from me are still people with as much humanity as me.

I grew up with the knowledge that my family came to privilege later than some, that people with my name and my genes and my tendency to freckle were treated as lesser because of traits they had no control over. I grew up with stories about the monstrousness that results when empathy is eroded, when people are taught not to feel for those outside their particular tribe.

I was a weird, lonely kid whose closest ties were to fictional people, who made friends with difficulty. If I'd had the wrong role models-- if I'd been fed the wrong narratives-- it would have been frighteningly easy for me to grow up without empathy, or with less of it. But I was lucky.

It sounds silly, but it matters that I grew up with Matilda Wormwood, who believed in using her gifts to seek justice; that I grew up with Meg Murry, whose greatest strength was her ability to love. I grew up with Sara Crewe, who knew that all girls are princesses, every one of them; I grew up with Mary Lennox, who didn't learn that she was worth loving until she learned how to love others.

I am so, so lucky to have had the role models and circumstances and stories that I have had. I am trying really hard to feel pity for the people responsible for Jordan Davis' death and the miscarriage of justice that followed, instead of hate. I am trying really hard to empathize. Empathizing with Jordan and his family is easy, for me: I have been blessed with a set of eyes that don't have to work to perceive their humanity and goodness.

For me, in my circumstances, it is easy to empathize with people who have the cards stacked against them, for whom the very structure of our society has been built to exclude and diminish. Empathizing with those who our culture has taught all the wrong lessons, who are blinkered by prejudice, who do monstrous things with no expectation of censure because they don't see their victims as people: that's really hard. I'm not very good at it yet.

I'm not really sure where I'm going with this. Jordan's story is not about me or my feelings, even a little bit. If you haven't read the article yet, please do that now, because it has a lot more important things to say than I do.

Just-- I had that moment, that moment of Thank God I know enough to be on the right side in this, and I was surprised by what I found when I looked closer at it. I am lucky. My eyes are open. I hope that doesn't come across as self-congratulatory. But I do feel this way, about all of us who struggle against the brokenness in our culture, against the pervasive narratives which tell us that some people are fundamentally worth less than others. We have been given a gift.

I don't envy the people living without it.

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