Experience and Empathy

Posted in General by Brian @ Apr 30, 2013

(Written on day 30 of #climatehungerstrike in Washington, DC)

If you’ve never been forced to go hungry for a few days, it is an experience that I recommend everyone go through at least once.

As my stomach growls after thirty days and I can’t help but imagine the tastes of my favorite foods longingly, the injustice of hundreds of millions of people forced to experience this on a regular basis is so vividly real, so horrifyingly appalling, that I am simply beside myself.

The word empathy is defined in the Miriam Webster dictionary as the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.

For many of us this quality of the heart, the quality which lies at the core of the deepest compassion, caring, and love, is limited by our narrow frames of reference.

How can we truly reach out and touch the pain of our brothers and sisters suffering around the world when we have absolutely no idea what it could feel like to be in their shoes?

How can we truly touch the horrors of the world we are leaving to our children when our very nervous systems have never palpated anything even closely resembling them?

I can honestly say, for the first time in my life, that I am beginning to understand the apathy of the industrialized world. This apathy which allows the perpetuation of war, starvation, brutal working conditions, and other consequences of our lifestyle in the lives of people in every corner of the globe is partly a consequence of the fact that with no frame of reference for these experiences, it is impossible for us to make their existence real in our hearts and our minds.

On this hunger strike I have come to understand more deeply the quality that is necessary for the formation of a global movement of deep, spiritual, non-violent resistance that may give future generations a life: heart.

Gandhi and King strongly encouraged their followers to take self-suffering and purification upon themselves in preparation for their struggles. They understood, as I can only say that I am just beginning to, that to experience real suffering not only creates deep solidarity with those who experience the consequences of the injustice we seek so desperately to fight, but it allows us to go beyond the pettiness of our day-to-day desires, anxieties, and concerns to find the space in our consciousness to touch what is real. It strengthens our spirits.

The wisdom of Gandhi and King, I know now, can not be learned through books alone.

I am firmly convinced that the path of non-violent, spiritual struggle presents the only road to humanity’s salvation. I believe it is the only chance that we have to combat global injustice against impossible odds and make a future possible, but more fundamentally I believe it is the only road available for all of us to rise above the shallowness, self-absorption, and apathy which have brought us, collectively, into this mess in the first place.

I also see very clearly that in the way of non-violent, spiritual struggle, I am as a pre-schooler. This experience has taught me more about myself and about life than perhaps any I can think of in momory. Most of all it has taught me how much I have to learn.

Given how little time we have, I pray we will all learn fast.


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