Thursday, November 15, 2007

Empathy

I think one of the most beneficial aspects of this little experiment we've designed is not the reduced impact each of us will have over the course of it, but rather the empathy we will gain. I am reminded of the common phrase, that if you really want to understand someone, you must walk a mile in his or her shoes. (A slightly lesser known, yet equally effective expression that elaborates on the first is "If you don't stop to consider how turkeys think about the world, how will you ever walk a mile in another man's shoes?" - credited to a certain blogger you and I know). I don't think whoever came up with this expression was advocating the stealing of other people's shoes and subsequent mile walks. All that would really give you is a perspective on how comfortable his shoes were, and maybe athlete's foot. But it represents the idea of getting into someone's head, or really understanding their situation, where they came from, to know why they feel the way they do. We are all products of our upbringings. Events that happened in my childhood affect me, just as they affect you, the reader (however they are different events, unless we lived identical childhoods, which is possible, in which case we don't need to swap shoes, it'll save us some trouble).

Empathy is what we all need a bit more of in this country and in our lives. Now before I continue I want to be clear and admit that I know many of you already value empathy, and I may not be saying anything new or revolutionary, and I certainly don't feel like I am tackling a topic with such breadth and complexity as Alex has in his recent posts (which I commend him on. Oh, you liked them too? That's nice to hear. Hey, I know someone who'd like to hear that too! This is a shameless plug for comments...). However, empathy is essential. I will also take this opportunity for another shameless plug for a website with no ties to me whatsoever, I just happened to stumble upon it, I swear......... www.empathysymbol.com. That's the first real website I have mentioned.

So where am I going with this? I think many people fear vegetarianism, and think that the only people who do it are crazy animal huggers (there are laws against that you know..) or left-wing eco-nazis or people from some other fringe movement. We relegate them to minority status, which they have intrinsically by being vastly outnumbered by meat eaters (~3% in this country), but we treat them like they are misguided for their decision. Well I am not saying that you have to live as a vegetarian to understand their plight, I think I have gained some insight I wouldn't have had otherwise. And I think some of the best experiences I have had with this whole process is not the foods I eat or the lack of meat, but the conversations I have had with other vegetarians. Telling my story and sharing it with them, then hearing their personal story of their personal choice. Many people choose the life of a vegetarian for reasons far different than I would ever have, like animal rights issues (not that I think animals don't have rights, but I am far less concerned with that than I am with Mama Earth.) But instead of casting these people aside and making fun of them for caring about animals, taunting them (I am reminded of a bill our wonderful governor in the great state of Minnesota signed that would have done something to promote animal cruelty, in which he stated that he planned to sign it while enjoying a nice steak and fish dinner... that's cruel), or in general not listening to their cries, we need to understand their reasoning, even if we don't agree with it.

Like I just stated, I don't feel moved by the animal rights movement. I wear a leather jacket, still eat eggs and drink milk, and plan on eating chicken in the future. But I respect that different life experiences have lead some of my fellow men or women to fight the injustices that they see. If I don't respect that, at least on some level, how can I expect them, or anyone else for that matter, to respect me when I stand up for an injustice I see? Would they not be justified in calling me a crazy nut job who shares the viewpoint of just 3% of the population? Why are you wasting your time, they could say to me, it's never going to make a difference. In fact, the environmental movement gets a lot of that. Well, the civil rights movement started in the minority as well, as we are only about 13% African-American in this country; the women's rights movement in the minority (yes I know half of people are women, but you get the idea); the call to end slavery in the minority; the fight for gays rights still remains in the minority, however fast it may be growing. Respect for the minority opinion is something that we hold true as Americans. Our government, our constitution, was deemed revolutionary for the very reason that the minority party has a say. It's something we take for granted in this country, but many other nations do not have that built in respect for the little guy. And we have this system because of a respect for empathy. The founding fathers knew that it sucks to be in the minority and have your opinions be squashed. They also realized that the minority opinion still represents a large part of the country, and in a representative government one should strive for 100% representation. Lastly, they realized that things may shift, and when that other party takes the majority away from you, you sure as heck hope they treat you well. But if you didn't treat them well, they have no motivation to do anything but return the "favor."

My point is - I think we need a bit of empathy. In all aspects of our lives. But in respect to vegetarianism, I think we need to understand that there are those who find reason for making such a drastic and counter-to-the-norm decision, and even if we do not understand fully what their reasoning is, or do not share their viewpoint, we need to respect it, and maybe add a few more options on the menu, make alternative choices in the supermarket a bit more accessible, and in general not type these people as fringe. Who knows, the day may come (and I hope it does for my Mama's sake, Mama Earth that is) when we ALL eat less meat and want more options and support systems for making the transition. Or at least the day may come when you decide that you are ready for the change. Wouldn't you feel worse about making the change to something you once denounced?

I like that this experience will become part of my life as a story. I will be so thankful to be able to recount this experience, and tell people I gave up meat for a month. They may not be too impressed, they may have done it before or may say they don't think it would be too hard. But I can still say I did it. I know what its like. I hope that we can all find little ways to challenge ourselves to see through someone else's eyes. It doesn't have to be a grandeur experiment with a blog. But I hope that I, and you the reader too, can find ways to challenge our norms, break out of the shells of our lives, and experience what someone else has. I think after that we'd all have a bit more respect for each other.

2 comments:

Nick N. said...

Dear Devin,
Last night, while watching a midnight showing of the film Beowulf in glorious 3D, I was struck by the beauty of the planet Earth and how important it is that we all make a strong effort to do what's right and show empathy toward all those who fight to do what is right and conserve this wonderful planet upon which we live.

Actually, the latter part of that paragraph wasn't remotely true (well, it's untrue that I was thinking about it, not that I agree with it). I just wanted to tell you that I saw Beowulf last night. And it was frickin' awesome.

Cram DeRux said...

Hey, you can get cool empathy bumper stickers and buttons at www.empathysymbol.com!

This is a site that I, being Devin's father, have no connection to either, but I can tell you, nobody's making any money at it.

Way to go, Devin!

Dad