Expanding Our Empathy
It is tempting to think that one is expanding one’s empathy for others by, for example, listening to a podcast by a person of color and extrapolating from that to assure oneself that one now has empathy for all people of color. And sure, it is a step on the road to expanding one’s empathetic responses to others. But that’s not all there is.
Empathy asks us to keep in mind and consider both sides of the coin of otherness: we are all alike, in some ways, and we are all different, in some ways. We are all part of one group: humanity, and have in common the basic needs and traits of human beings. Generally, we all desire love and connection; generally, all cultures value family; generally, we thrive when we can do meaningful work. So maybe we start from that common base, acknowledging that those who seem “other” to us are like us in many ways, connecting in our common humanity.
And of course, each of us is an individual person, with varying life experiences, talents, personalities, and thought processes. Then add the layer of culture, and the layer of the intersectionality of those things that go into forming each individual person, like one’s race, sexual orientation, sexual identity, age, physical body traits and so on, that all combine with whatever genetics we are born with, to create each of us.
So, if we wish to have empathy for another person, or for another group of persons, we have to keep all of these aspects of the other in our minds and our hearts. That is the premise of an organization founded in 2015 by Minneapolis writer Carolyn Holbrook called More Than a Single Story. As the Star Tribune reports, it was created “to amplify the voices of Minnesota writers of color and Indigenous writers. Its aim is also to combat the stereotypes that emerge when one person’s story is seen as ‘representative of an entire community.'”
Carolyn Holbrook has put together a new book with co-editor David Mura titled “We Are Meant to Rise.” It features almost three dozen essays and poems from a diverse group of storytellers. Book reviewer Lorraine Berry says this book is “a triumph of storytelling, a panoply of of experiences drawn from the diverse peoples of Minnesota.” As her review concludes, “Empathy for others is one way to break down the artificial barriers we construct. But getting to empathy and understanding requires that no single story be taken as the only voice that matters. While the common theme that runs through the pieces is a sort of ‘how we have lived through the past two years,’ the range of responses feels like a broadening of the world after so many months of contraction.”