I’m wondering what would happen if we could—and would—regularly imagine the lives of people, real people in our country and in our world, who live lives beyond our own experience. What would happen to our public policy, and foreign policy, if we didn’t seemingly lack the ability to imagine lives?
It’s impossible, it seems, to be empathetic if you cannot imagine a reality beyond your own. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, partly because I’m reading Lisel Mueller’s collection of poems, Alive Together, which is filled with empathy, and partly because of the 50th anniversary of the integration of Little Rock Central High School a couple of weeks ago.
Over the week of Little Rock coverage on NPR, I sat in my car, driving to work and driving Stella to pre-school, listening to the speeches from the now-middle-aged Little Rock nine and what they went through half a century ago, and I just felt so sad. Only fifty years ago. That’s nothing. It’s a blink of an eye.
As I listened, and even after I turned off the radio, the image that I couldn’t shake was one that’s in the beginning pages of Melba Pattillo Beals’ memoir Warriors Don’t Cry, which describes her experiences as one of the Little Rock nine. That photo is one that most Americans should recognize: the young Elizabeth Eckford walking down the street, a mob of white women— mothers—directly behind her, screaming and angry.
I understand that hate comes from fear. I understand that difference seems scary to people. But what I cannot wrap my mind around is this: white mothers, who have their own children, being able to hate those kids because they were black. How could they lack such imagination? How could they not have imagined what those kids were going through? How could they not have imagined the nine’s own mothers, sitting at home, wringing their hands, unable to protect their kids from all that hate?
I love my Stella so much that the thought of her having to live through something like that makes me physically sick. But my protectiveness doesn’t end with her. No child should have to experience that kind of hate, ever. No mother should have to know her child is living through that kind of hate, ever.
If we were more empathic, if we weren’t so wrapped up in our own lives, would this kind of thing still happen?
I had never read Lisel Mueller’s poetry. She won the Pulitzer in 1997, and her poetry has been published since the late ‘50s, but she was new to me. (I’m forever catching up, and always feel behind my peers in terms of reading…Alas. I’m working on it.)
She’s very talented—obviously—but the thing that struck me more than anything in her poems was her empathy, her ability to see the real people living real lives beyond her own.
From “Captivity” (about Patty Hearst)
In the beginning we followed her story
as we used to follow
the girl in the fairy tale.
Pity and fear. The decent girl
cast out to be cruelly tested
in the dark forest. Sentimental,
we swore she would never falter.
So when she started turning
into her dark sister,
we felt confused, betrayed.
More and more we heard
Tania’s harder tones
usurping her soft voice.
Patty was driven underground.
She turned into Tania and we turned against her;
sooner or later the victim gets blamed.
Perhaps by then we were bored
with the innocent of the story.
From “An Unanswered Question”
If I had been the lone survivor
of my Tasmanian tribe,
the only person in the world
to speak my language
(as she was),
if I had known and believed that
(for who can believe
in an exhaustible language),
and I had been shipped
to London, to be exhibited
in a cage (as she was)
to entertain the curious
who go to museums and zoos…
I wonder: if we tried to write (and think) beginning with “if I had been…” would we be able to better access our empathy? Could we make a difference?