A Rant about Empathy

When I was in grad school and about to become a college teacher, an older more experienced teacher gave me some very potent words of wisdom. “Shane,” she said, “never teach a story or a poem that you really love. Your students will just shit all over it.” Now, it’s pretty obvious that this is a figurative expression, as I’m sure most students have toilet paper at home, but it’s also pretty true.

Since I’ve been teaching for 4 1/2 years, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried has been “boring and redundant,” Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man has been “stupid,” and some of my favorite poetry has been described as a waste of time. I still teach it, though–all of it–because I think those stories and poems are important, even if 18-22 year-olds think it’s dumb or boring to read about actual human suffering.

This morning I taught “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula Le Guin. In short, it’s a story that is set in a town where everyone is happy and no one suffers ever. They have no need for a lot of the laws and social structures that we are all familiar with because they are all so happy.

However, this happiness is all predicated on an undisclosed arrangement the town has made with someone or something. The only way the town can remain joyful and painless is for one child, a scapegoat, to be held in captivity and treated poorly. He/ she is malnourished and psychologically abused in the basement of a building in town. The happiness of the majority depends on the suffering of this one, poor child.

When the people of the town reach a certain age, they are taken to the child so they can see the reason/ vehicle for their happiness. Then the people of Omelas have to decide whether to stay, knowing their happiness comes at the expense of another’s misery, or go, knowing that to leave is to live a normal life filled with uncertainty and suffering.

The story is obviously a parable/ allegory for injustices in contemporary society. It speaks directly to how we are able to live our lives knowing that there are people who suffer. In a capitalist society, one may argue, we must have a lower class in order for there to be an upper class. We are so willing to actively ignore injustice in order to live comfortable lives. I’m guilty. You’re guilty. We all are on some level. We don’t like to think of the kid in the basement, or the tent city in the poor part of town, or the gangs that roam the streets–banded together for a sense community because their other community rejected them.

But the students in that class didn’t shit on that story. They responded pretty well to it, and they picked up on the themes pretty quickly, and we had a nice conversation. But yesterday, in another class, a student confessed to me that she didn’t know what topic to address in her op-ed.

For the assignment, I asked students to consider the issue about which they could not remain silent–the thing that makes them angry or sad or distraught or whatever. This student admitted to me that there is not a thing that makes her sad for another person because those injustices don’t effect her. She knows they exist, but they don’t impact her personally, so there is not emotional reaction.

And I realized that for maybe the first time in my life, I had met a citizen of Omelas. In every way, she said to me, “I am aware of the pain and suffering in the world, but it doesn’t bother me because I am not in pain and I am not suffering.” She has been shown the abused and neglected child in the basement beneath the streets of Omelas, and still she chooses to stay.

I wonder, though, if she’s very different from the rest of us. Is it that she’s just the honest one? Don’t we all have a cause? Don’t we all want more for the people we share the planet with, or at least for the planet itself?

I don’t know, man. I’m not asking for anyone to fix anything by themselves. I just want somebody to feel something. I think we’re in real trouble if empathy is something that is foreign to us.

Sorry for the rant.


9 thoughts on “A Rant about Empathy

  1. I think the media, in all its many forms, from “news” to movies to internet, etc., has so overwhelmed us with everything from minor injustices to horrific events in every remote corner of the world that we feel a sense of…overwhelm. Powerlessness against the enormity of it all, until we finally retreat to within our own anxieties. A sort of emotional short-circuit due to the overload of it all. Maybe. I’m just thinking out loud. But I do experience this, and when your very honest student, whose honesty I really appreciate, says what she says, I wonder if this isn’t the case for her too.

    • I appreciate her honesty, too. Because when she’s honest about not feeling, we have identified at least a symptom of something. Much better to have that to work with than nothing at all.

      But her self-diagnosis was maybe the sad part. To paraphrase, “I am a spoiled, rich, white girl..I don’t pay bills, etc etc.” A lack of life experience is probably to blame.

      On another level, though, I am less concerned about an inability to care about planet-level or nation-level issues. I am much more concerned about the refusal to care for local and personal issues. It’s the “Thirty-Eight Saw Murder and Didn’t Call Police” thing. When we sit idle while our friends and family suffer. That’s what gets me.

      Thanks for reading, though. Always nice when you stop by my corner of the web.

  2. I loved “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” when I read it back in high school. It’s stuck with me ever since – I think because it DID make me feel something. Yet, other books/texts meant to do the same thing, fell short. And the same went for my peers at the time. I think the thing that makes this short story so easily accessible to the general public is because it doesn’t deal with one specific issue (race, poverty, religion, etc.). Instead, it focuses on one of the most basic of human experiences – suffering. I think everyone suffers (to varying degrees) and in this way, they are able to relate to the child in the story. It does worry me that one of your students couldn’t feel anything for the suffering of others in the world – but perhaps you’re right. Perhaps she is, in a way, one of the ones who would elect to stay in Omelas after seeing the child. And maybe there are more of us than we think. But I think empathy is one of the few things we have left in this world that grant us the potential to be decent humans. And I hope that it isn’t vanishing.

    • I actually never read the story until I was teaching it a few years ago, but you’re right. It seems to be a story that deals with a universal concern, so a lot of students “get” it.

      I can’t remember a time when I didn’t care about anything, though. I always cared some, I think.

      Thanks so much for stopping by, Taylor!

      • I think a lot of people care some – but I think few are aware of it, tending to push those messy emotions and concerns to the back of their minds. Hopefully exposing students to texts like this will make them a little more aware of their thoughts and their fellow humans 🙂

  3. No. She’s no different than some of us. She’s like me, and my children. ( and I’m afraid they didn’t learn this anywhere but at home. ) What bearing does this have on your every day life? How does this effect/affect your day to day life? It doesn’t mean that we don’t care, but we are intelligent enough to know that as one person, one person alone can’t change it. You can’t let the suffering of one long standing way of being, affect your core self.

    In a way, it would be like trying to tell a classroom full of students in rich central America to cry over the children suffering in third world anywhere. They would not be able too. Does that mean there is something inherently wrong with their core selves? No. It just simply means they -know- there is a flaw in the system of the world, but that they can not personally change it. It is not mentally or emotionally intelligent for them to let it effect them in a deep level. It’s a smarter, drama free way of being, if you take the time to consider it. It also means, these kids who approach life in this way, will be able in the right environment, to affect change down the road as adults in an non-emotionally driven manner. Which is the kind of change this world needs.

    I hope I am making sense in my choice of words. It saddens me that people think she didn’t feel anything because of her choice of words.

    • You totally make sense. And you’re right in so many ways. I’m not talking about wanting to see an emotional, tears and flailing response out of her. I want to see empathy. Maybe I chose poorly my words, and maybe she did, too.

      You’re right when you say that people who can keep their emotions out of things can trigger real change. But only people who are capable of empathy have a desire to trigger change. So maybe she has the capacity to understand the pain of someone else and she just doesn’t hurt for the person herself. That’s fine. I can live in that world a bit easier.

      Thanks so much for stopping by!

      • You should ask her.
        I fully believe and support in open communication and dialogue. Especially intelligent ones that teach us things.

        I’m also going to give my son this book to take to his American Lit teacher, and beg him to get it read. I want to know the dialogue that comes from it in his class, and his American Lit teacher is good enough she may include it. So thank you.

  4. Pingback: Public Versus Private Shame | Virtual Napkins

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