I remember after class one time in graduate school at U of L, two of my female classmates approached me to ask if I were going to the parking garage, and if so, could they walk with me. I said, “Of course.”
The class got out well after dark, and the parking garage was across campus. So we walked together in the dark.
When we got to the parking garage, I walked both my friends to their cars, waiting until they drove off. Nobody made a big deal out of it, but it struck me that there are some things I take for granted about the way the world operates that many other people can’t afford to be so casual about.
After I’d left my friends at their cars, I started walking to mine. On the way, while still reflecting on my female classmates, I noticed another woman walking toward me. And I started thinking, “I’ll bet she has to size me up as a potential threat. She doesn’t know if I am or not, but she can’t afford to take too many chances. I’m a pretty good-sized guy, kind of scruffy looking. I’ve got long hair, a beard, wearing a black leather jacket. She doesn’t know me.”
And then I had a shocking thought: “I bet I look kind of scary in a lonely parking garage at night.” But in my mind that can’t be right. Because, you see, in my personal narrative, I’m the good guy. I’m the guy who helps little old ladies catch their dogs and put their groceries in the trunks of their cars. I don’t waylay unsuspecting strangers. I don’t scare college girls in parking garages at night. But the young woman approaching me in this parking garage right now doesn’t know that. And she believes as she crosses to the other side, that she can’t really afford to take the chance.
I can see it in the way her eyes dart about. And it makes me so sad, knowing that even trying to allay her fears will only heighten her sense of danger. I attempt a smile, but she hurries by me in the opposite direction, her heels clicking in a kind of frightened Morse Code only those conditioned to dread the violence of the night can translate.
This new twist in parking garage orienteering led to another thought: “My experience of the world is totally different from that. I can’t remember the last time I felt physically intimidated like somebody might be trying to figure out whether I was an easy target for brutality. I don’t have to treat each new encounter as a potential threat.”
Now, maybe I’m kidding myself; maybe I should have my threat detectors calibrated more finely. But that seems like a really crappy way to have to live—which led to another thought: “That’s the world a lot of people live in every day—one I take for granted means me no harm, but one that always seems fraught with potential violence for many.”
Let’s be honest: There’s a certain privilege in being a 215-pound straight white guy who often looks like he just walked off the set of Sons of Anarchy.
Privilege. Male privilege. Straight privilege. White privilege.
Ugh! Start talking about privilege and people’s eyes glaze over. Let me put that more precisely: Start talking about privilege and people who enjoy privilege lose interest in the conversation . . . like, really quickly.
I suspect it has something to do with the fact that people like to think of whatever advantages they have in life as earned.
Ok. So, I won’t talk about privilege. What if I talk about the disparity of advantage in terms of a sustained habit of empathy?
What if the scary-looking guy who means no harm spent time trying to see the world through the eyes of a scared coed in a parking garage? It might not make him any less scary to the next young woman he passes; but it might prompt him to call attention to a world in which a significant portion of the inhabitants feel that, given a range of everyday circumstances, they have to treat each new encounter with a stranger as having a potential for violence.
If you go through life with very little fear of being attacked, or suspected, or ostracized because of how you look, or the person you love, or the country of your birth, don’t you have a moral responsibility to create a world in which others don’t have to live in fear either?
Empathy. It’s something that has to be learned. One of the things that set homo sapiens apart from our other animal relatives is our capacity for imagining the worlds others live in, worlds we’ve never actually experienced for ourselves.
Part of what makes empathy possible is narrative—inhabiting the worlds of others through engagement with their stories. Stories help us to understand not only our own worlds but the worlds other people live in.
The reading of stories is a rehearsal in bringing some kind of order to what otherwise might appear to be chaos. To the extent that human beings find themselves in a world that seems unguided by any underlying plot structure, people try to make sense of the world around them through the construction of narratives. Philosopher of literature, Wayne Booth, argues that “we all live a great proportion of our lives in surrender to stories about our lives, and about other possible lives; we live more or less in stories, depending on how strongly we resist surrendering to what is ‘only’ imagined” (14).
It is through these narratives that one’s life and the actions of others are understood. Without some narrative, life appears to be a disjointed series of random episodes, unrelated to any larger story. Humans gain a certain mastery of the world through a narration of life that offers to mean, where before the narration, there was none. Telling stories helps to shape our capacity for engaging our own stories by continually exposing us to the practice of imposing narrative order on what would otherwise be experienced as a seemingly endless series of episodes with no goal and, therefore, no purpose.
According to Iris Murdoch, art teaches us how to look beyond our fat, relentless egos—which mediate reality in a distorted fashion—to attend to the world imaginatively and, ultimately, she thinks, truthfully (Sovereignty of Good 51). If science encourages us to see the world as objectifiable, and if the Western culture has bequeathed us an unfortunate set of mental habits that results in a vision of the world that looks more like a projection of my interior self, art helps me to refocus my sight.
Through reading, I accumulate a fund of experiences that allows me to make inferences about the world from perspectives other than my own. Though they may not be entirely identical, emotions elicited by reading stories offer insight into the emotional lives of others (both fictional and real) by giving me—however, attenuated it may be—the ability to feel what it might be like to have a certain kind of experience. In this creative aesthetic space, we can begin to imagine how others experience life as subjects—not as objects, or as extensions or projections of our fat, relentless egos.
In The Lovely Bones, for instance, Alice Sebold introduces us to a fourteen-year-old girl, Susie Salmon, who is raped and murdered in the first chapter, and who narrates the rest of the book from heaven. The plot deals with the aftermath of her death, and how her family attempts to come to terms with it. Through Susie’s eyes, the reader begins to see what it might look like to love a victim of a violent crime—the initial panic of a missing child, the wrenching grief at the loss, the enduring pain and emptiness. The book is intensely affecting. And while, admittedly, there can be no equivalent between the emotions experienced by those who lose a loved one to violent crime and the emotions experienced when reading about the loss of a loved one to violent crime, the emotional understanding one receives by reading about this kind of experience gives one a sense of what it might feel like to lose someone to violence. The kind of subjective knowledge of what it is like to be X, if only in a partial way, allows one better to be able to attend to another as a human being and not as an abstraction.
I’ve taken you on this long journey into aesthetics and the philosophy of literature to tell you this: the reading of Scripture requires no less a creative imagination about the worlds others inhabit, no less a developed sense of empathy for experiences other than one’s own. Part of what shapes our moral imaginations in studying our respective sacred texts is our commitment to inhabiting the world portrayed in the stories of those scriptures.
Part of what it means to learn from the stories of our sacred texts is our capacity for reading ourselves into the text, inhabiting its characters in the world they inhabit. Unfortunately, and although I can’t speak for the hermeneutical habits of my friends from the Jewish or Islamic traditions, Christians, in my experience, have a very bad habit of reading themselves into the wrong roles, identifying with the wrong characters—which conveniently allows them to avoid ever coming to terms with the truth of the text.
For instance, we Christians, starting with the Apostle Paul in his letter to the church in Rome, often like to think of Abraham as heroic . . . in precisely the ways we imagine ourselves at our best to be heroic. Abraham is faithful, and he and his family set out like ancient Mesopotamian Lewises and Clarks—forging a path to a new frontier, overcoming hardship and hostile natives, to settle a land predestined by God to be theirs—a great land for a great, though as yet an unrealized, nation. A kind of proto-Manifest Destiny.
God comes to Abraham and says, “Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses your I will curse; and in you, all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ So Abram went, as the LORD had told him” (Gen. 12:1-4a).
That Abraham obeys is counted to him as righteousness by Paul and the writer of Hebrews. God says, “Go,” and Abraham goes. Christians read this text as an exhortation to trust and obedience. Abraham went, so I should go—and as a reward for my obedience, I can expect God to bless me the way God blessed Abraham. Maybe not the parent-of-a-great-nation part, but surely at least some peace of mind when it comes to my teenagers.
I’m like Abraham—or at least I should want to be—is how Christians often read this text, aspiring to faithfulness. Such a reading may be too easy, however, merely confirming our penchant for reading ourselves into the role of the main character—usually a heroic one at that.
The problem with over-identifying with Abraham, in this case, is that many of us have never been asked to go from our country and our parents’ house. I’ve never had to sojourn into a new land, where I didn’t know the language or the culture or the people. I’ve never had to pull my kids out of school, load up the Wagon Queen Family Truckster, and hit the road to a place that God would show me.
Consequently, to imagine myself as Abraham—or Sarah or Lot, for that matter—is to forfeit an opportunity to be exposed to a different, harder truth that the text has to show someone who lives the kind of privileged life I do.
But while I haven’t ever had to pull up stakes and head into the unknown, I have lived in a place for which other people have left their own countries and the houses of their parents on nothing more than faith in a promise. I’ve lived my whole life in a land that has been the often inhospitable destination for people just like Abraham and his family.
What if the people I identified within this story weren’t Abraham and his family, but the residents of Canaan who found themselves face to face with these strangers and foreigners?
What if my hermeneutical task in reading the story of Abraham isn’t always just to see how my own storylines up with his, but to read myself into the role of the people who were asked to receive God’s servant?
What if the interpretive task set before privileged folks like me is to read the story from the perspective of the people who already owned homes, who already spoke the language, who already had ways of making a living, and who were given the great gift of receiving these new people into their midst?
Now, a more skeptical person might be thinking right about now: “Gift? How is it that Abraham’s crew represents a gift to the people of the land of Canaan? I mean, isn’t God going to give Abraham their land and make of Abraham’s offspring a great nation? The Canaanites could be wiped out, if this is true. Shouldn’t their highest loyalties be to their own citizens—not these foreign intruders? What if Abraham’s family starts taking jobs away from hard-working Canaanites? We know what happens when people like that start crossing the border. ‘They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.’ So, come on. Gifts? Please!”
Look, I’m not the one who said Abraham’s family would be a gift; God is. God told Abraham that he and his family would be a blessing and that all the families of the earth would be blessed through them. So God has a history of sending gifts in the person of strangers and foreigners. It’s not my book; I’m just telling you what’s in it.
So, in the world we occupy at present—with its divisions, with the constant sowing of hatred and fear toward those from other lands, those raised in other people’s houses—a world in which Dreamers, the undocumented, and refugees live in terror—what would it look like for privileged people to read the story of Abraham not from the perspective of the heroes, but from the perspective of those who are asked to welcome the stranger and the foreigner, to receive God’s blessing of new friends from other places?
Wouldn’t it be nice to imagine?
Previously published on Derekpenwell.net.
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