empathy champion

I remember learning the word “tolerance” very early in my life, around kindergarten. The first context I had for it was my dad yelling that it was what I needed to have towards my sister when we shared a room: it’s funny to me now, being yelled at about being tolerant. Then I remember reading it on a bumper sticker, probably also my dad’s: ”teach tolerance.”

A conversation a friend started on Twitter the other day made me recall that this was sort of weird, learning that tolerance was required when I was really small. I am still working on building up from tolerance into empathy. Reading a metric crapload of fiction helps with this: when you value the stories of people whose lives are completely different than yours, when you invest your time and yourself in characters struggling with complicated things, you practice being better at reading real people.

It sometimes seems this practice runs counter to everything we consider valuable as a culture. That’s the underlying assumption to the joke I hear when I say I majored in English in college: that it’s useless to have spent four years and tuition dollars learning how to read poems and write papers. Useless because there’s no money in it, no achievement that can be measured in earnings correlated with learning how to think more completely.

There’s no way to win at being kind to people; it’s supposed to be its own reward. We’ve built a culture where competition is essential but kindness is optional. It’s not a coincidence that kindness and empathy and caring and all those squishy things are considered women’s traits. We’ve built a double bind for everyone because we can’t reward those things— especially not in men. We can’t measure how good we are, and so our goodness is useless.

I read a lot this week about toxic masculinity— it’s not so much a toxin as a lack:

“We don’t raise boys to be men. We raise them not to be women, or gay men.”

Women learn both to care and to compete, and we despair that we can’t “have it all.” Men learn to compete, to never look weak and soft, to provide for themselves and those who depend on them.

There’s no room for what we might learn from each other when we all think we have to win. We’re conditioned to think there’s some sort of malicious otherness working against us. There’s a lack that everyone has: toxic masculinity and waning empathy are its nastier effects. The otherness takes lots of forms: religions, races, cultures, generations. We’re supposed to fight it, not learn from what it does, unless the learning is the way we win the fight. Because you can’t accomplish anything if you aren’t engaged in this fight, supposedly. Tolerance is just a way of letting the otherness gain a foothold.

I’m not trying to say that I know how to fix this, or that I’m any better than anyone, or that I’ve even expressed the complexity. I’m just observing what I try and what I see. If I structure my life around empathy and humility and trying to learn from what’s strange to me, I don’t know how to say when I’m successful. There’s no way one can be crowned the champion of empathy; I can’t put on my resumé that I think about it every day. But if I can nudge the frame of contemporary culture any tiny bit in this humanist direction, that seems like good work. Built into it is the knowledge that it’s never good enough.

(Between my writing and my revising of this, Roxane Gay posted about “What Empathy Is.” That post brings up current events that seemed too overwhelming to me even to touch on, but that are certainly related to why I am writing this now. Her piece ”The Meaning of Leaning” from this week’s Maura Magazine also resonates with my thoughts on how women compete.)