Exercises in empathy

On the importance of seeing people as human

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Victoria's column runs biweekly Tuesdays. She can be reached at v.moran@cavalierdaily.com. 

Marshall Bronfin | Cavalier Daily

I finally know what “sunken eyes” look like. After having long skimmed thoughtlessly past the phrase — overemployed by authors everywhere — and having dismissed it repeatedly as referring to a purely literary feature, I finally learned what it means when I sat across from a homeless man on the Free Trolley.

I sat and studied the man in front of me — a dingy, bandana-clad ellipsoid with a tufty white beard. He might’ve resembled Santa if he were even vaguely jolly (or just less asleep). At one point, the driver stopped the bus to stridently implore the man to stay awake, because sleeping is apparently not a permissible trolley activity. The man complied, and stared blinklessly through the windshield.

Becoming acutely aware of my leather sandals and the designer handbag I had just placed on the seat next to mine, I averted my eyes to the novel in my hands.

I spent the remainder of the ride, however, mulling over my feelings about the interaction. As I exited, I acknowledged the likelihood I would never give the man’s sunken eyes another thought. Just like the men I passed outside Little John’s earlier, and just like the people who sometimes sit smoking next to the train tracks, he was destined to join the ranks of all the other individuals I labeled “homeless” and then mentally dismissed.

But understanding someone as homeless isn’t the same as understanding someone as human. And to chalk someone up to an archetypal identity I assign him or her isn’t intelligent and it isn’t innocuous. It’s dehumanizing.

I began to wonder if displaying empathy would have helped me to understand the bandana-clad man on a more meaningful level. To that very end, I have worked in recent weeks to refine how I conceptualize empathy.

I sometimes refer to the experience of reading a good novel as an “exercise in empathy,” for the amount of time a reader spends each day in the mind of a protagonist can outweigh the time he or she could feasibly spend with friends on a day-to-day basis. In that way, surely some of us understand the characters in our favorite books more intimately than we understand even our closest friends. I wouldn’t deny that I’ve identified closely with characters I’ve never met — many of whom have racial, cultural or socioeconomic backgrounds wildly different from mine — simply because their thoughts and feelings are spelled out for me on a page.

What if I were to look at those I encounter in daily life in the same way I look at those I encounter in fiction — as dynamic, important characters to be meticulously studied and understood? What would I discover if I stopped reducing people based on what strikes me as their current sets of circumstances?

I have a friend who sees every individual she encounters as wholly human. The example she sets is beautiful and sobering. She is on a first name basis with many of the homeless people I normally pass without a second glance on the Corner. When she introduced me to them for the first time, I shook their hands. I heard their names and heard their stories, and it occurred to me that they’re not just smoking cigarettes at a location that happens to be on my route when I walk home — they’re living their own unique lives.

Lately, I’ve wondered at the lack of information conveyed by the labels a stranger could reasonably assign to me: a “student,” a “writer,” a “20-something.” There is far more depth to the homeless man who introduced himself to me as “the one who got stabbed.”

Surely there’s more to be said about a person than his or her archetype. Surely there’s more to me than my topical, University-assigned identity. Surely there’s more to be said about all of us.

Of course, empathizing is easier said than done. It’s hard to see anyone as wholly human because — save for when their mental processes are outlined before us in print, as with the characters in a novel — we can never know another person the way we know ourselves.

But I wonder if it wouldn’t be more productive to stop dismissing people’s complexities and begin understanding individuals to be both multi-dimensional and flawed. Maybe, like the characters we come to know in texts, people are more relatable and amiable than their appearances would initially have you believe. Maybe some people are far more beautiful than I’ve given them credit for.

Victoria’s column runs biweekly Tuesdays. She can be reached at v.moran@cavalierdaily.com.

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