Saturday, December 17, 2005

Season for Empathy

I'm heartened by the news that Secretary of State Rice has weighed in on the funding for the African Union Mission in Sudan (ht Eugene). I've closely followed this aspect of the situation because enlarging that force and expanding its capabilities is one of the most doable routes to easing some immediate concerns of the two million Darfuris who are still living in precarious conditions.

"Precarious." The entry for that word in the Online Dictionary of Etymology reads:

1646, a legal word, "held through the favor of another," from L. precarius "obtained by asking or praying," from prex (gen. precis) "entreaty, prayer." Notion of "dependent on the will of another" led to sense "risky, dangerous, uncertain" (1687).

Wretched and awful may be all too commonplace in the world today. Precarious strikes me as far more critical.

I've been thinking a bit about empathy and its limits, or whether it has much force or domain at all. Catez has asked that submissions for the Third Spotlight on Darfur be tied in with Christmas in some way. Well, it's easy enough to link to UNICEF and suggest that you contribute to their to general fund, or to one of their many programs, including those for emergencies, one of which remains the situation in Darfur.

It makes me wonder though. How is that people are more generous at some times than at others? Does the phenomenon of increased charitable donations at Christmas (or Ramadan for that matter) say anything about our capacity for empathy? Is it the flipside of "compassion fatigue"? Is empathy so taxing? Does it's ebb and flow have to do with knowledge, and the kinds of things people are asked to think about?

Perhaps a key relation is to setting time aside from labor, the notion of a sabbath or simply a rest. I live in a technologically advanced postindustrial society, and yet the rhythms of my life remain connected to an agrarian history. The imprints of industrialization, the labor movement, holidays secular and religious: all these are also discernable, but the agrarian roots remain.

I don't know whether the rhythms of life in the refugee camps of Sudan and Chad have any sense of connection to the ways of life that have been systematically wiped away by the government of Sudan and its proxy militias. I expect that the rainy season and the dry season, day and night, have already taken on a new meanings in light of the precarious situtation people find themselves in. It's dreadful to imagine what it must be like to spend a childhood in that kind of an environment, and what that means for the communities that have been displaced. Will there be an opportunity to recover something of the life that came before?

Thinking about my own family history, there have been upheavals and calamaties, but here in America we have been able to carry on. We have not been marked for extermination, and the decision to leave the farm (or stay on it) was never made at the point of a gun. I know that historically this hasn't been the experience of all who came here, so I do feel rather blessed.

In the political sphere, there are allegiances or orders that would compartmentalize or otherwise limit the reach of the empathic faculty. Sometimes we act as if this only happened to others and not to ourselves. If only things were that simple.

It's a mistake to regard the ebb and flow of compassion as natural. Empathy is something you have to work at, a praxis. You can't just quit and expect empathy to blossom of its own accord. By the same token, if you intend to practice empathy with real effect, you can't allow yourself to be exhausted by it. How and when you practice empathy is something you have to live with. Whether you work through introspection or reaching out, in keeping with your temperment and circumstances, the cultivation of empathy is your gift to the world.

posted by Fido the Yak at 3:25 AM.


Anonymous Eddie said...

I think its a lifelong process; learning how to utilize, how to "feel" empathy. Heartfelt post, thank you for writing it.

December 18, 2005 4:02 AM  

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