***This post is late–I blame Irma, because she’s handy.***
It’s a sign of our super-saturated online life: I read a teaser the other day for an article about empathy and its decline in modern teens, and now I can’t find the full article. I’m sure it was some kind of discussion of the Michigan Empathy Study (http://bit.ly/1pCWfKf), and this Time article by author Michele Borba looks pretty similar (http://ti.me/2ckQNS0).
Of course there is a lot going on right now to over-fill our brains. We’re all still reeling from the images of Hurricane Harvey’s devastation in Texas, and then suddenly Irma is mauling the Leeward Islands and barrelling toward Florida. For a time it looked like we here in South Carolina were in the crosshairs, though now Irma seems bent on bringing the first tropical storm to America’s heartland. Chargers in Charlottesville, mudslides in Bangladesh, Barbuda wiped clean, an earthquake in Mexico; it’s a lot to absorb, and after a point we just sort of shut down.
Last Thursday night at our varsity football game we had an athletic wear drive for school teams in Texas, and Friday we had a dress-down day in support of another Texas charity. Our students and teachers are uniformly kind (even when being able to wear a tee shirt and shorts to school aren’t in the offing). But I also believe the study; we are all a bit more numb, a bit more removed, than we used to be.
Also last Thursday night, my Godsister* and my nephew reached our house after a 15+-hour drive up from Miami. I helped unload the car: suitcases hurriedly packed; a cooler of food grabbed from the fridge; a couple of blankets; a guitar; and two paintings from my Godmother’s house.
I hadn’t even thought about these paintings until that moment. They are interesting in and of themselves, because they were painted by The Highwaymen, a group of African-American painters who created stereotypical tropical scenes to sell on the side of the road or in those strange hotel-lobby sales you see sometimes: palm trees and water in the moonlight, or beach-y sunsets in oranges and pinks, with seagulls in little V-shaped dabs of paint (http://www.floridahighwaymenpaintings.com/). So they are cool all by themselves, but mostly those paintings represent my Godmother, and her 1960s-era Mackle house on Key Biscayne, and the years spent in and around the place, and people who are gone but who live on not just in our memories, but in the physical space we all shared. With that under threat, we were simultaneously glad to be together and safe, and stuck in some kind of limbo: what of these not-ultimately-important, but still so-important, things would be left when the wind and water recede? After witnessing from afar the suffering of others, in other parts of the world, I suddenly had the fear of loss and damage right here on my doorstep.
This brought me back around to the headline I had seen earlier in the week, and the talk of empathy and the perception that it has declined. I also thought of news stories I have seen which have described people witnessing tragic events, and viewing those events, through their smartphones–using them as a lens for their experience, with the unintended secondary consequence of adding an artificial distance between us and what is happening to the other humans around us. The world continues to grow smaller; we witness the minutia of others’ suffering on tiny screens. It is too easy for us to become inured to what seems distant, whether it is half a world or two states away.
As with everything, balance is key, isn’t it? The quest for information, images, video of the tragedy-of-the-moment must be counterweighted by challenging ourselves to engage actively and empathetically. We must learn–and help our students learn–how to juggle the sometimes thorny multiple existences we lead: information seekers, technology users, empathetic humans, watchers and hands-on helpers. As we seek to meet our own standards for educating our students to be not only excellent academicians, but also excellent humans, we must remind ourselves, and our students, of how incredibly small the world has become. We must find a way to keep ourselves from becoming tone-deaf. Empathy means gathering clothes and books and donations, and it also means working to keep our antennae finely tuned to what others are experiencing, when so much of the world is reducible to a meme and 140 characters.
*Spellcheck doesn’t like this word–shame on it. Godsister = the daughter of my Godmother. A slightly more elegant and Episcopalian version of the Sister from Another Mister.