I remember reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and being struck by the moral lesson that we should endeavor to see life from the perspective of other people. Atticus Finch advised his daughter, Scout, that, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” This is a form of empathy called cognitive empathy, and involves us seeing the world by standing in the shoes of someone else. It is an endeavor that we can nurture through the art of conversation.
The recent Supreme Court and media attention to issues around gay marriage and the political focus on immigration have highlighted the pressing need for conversation as a means towards empathy and compassion. During a recent interview by Krista Tippett on her radio show, On Being, her two guests talked about their shifting attitudes towards gay marriage as a result of their conversations. David Blankenhorn acknowledged that, “your friendships are influencing your thinking.” Blankenhorn went on to confess that, “you build up a kind of a barrier of belief in theory and it keeps the other people out, and so you talk about them. You have theories about them. You can explain their lives to them, but you never really talk to them and see it from their point of view.”
Similarly, in today’s New York Times, Julia Preston writes about the morphing views of evangelicals towards immigration. Preston writes that this rethinking came as a result of personal encounters by evangelicals with immigrants in church who were trying to navigate the maze of the nation’s immigration laws, which in the case of one interviewee involved a Colombian friend who turned out to be in America illegally.
In my previous blog post, Give to Get, I referenced Roman Krznaric’s suggestion that we embrace empathy as an essential step towards harmony, both socially and with ourselves. He calls for a movement towards being outrospective. We live in a fractious time, with political polarization, widening inequality and persistent social instability. It may seem trite, but we must find ways to observe Atticus Finch’s counsel that we find empathy with others, and conversing with people around us is a good way to start.