The ongoing refugee crisis in Europe rarely generates the level of empathy it would have if it was closer to home.
This American Life, the wonderful radio show / podcast, recently sent staffers to Greece to learn the stories of refugees. The stories were then shared over the course of two episodes. Episode 592 in particular, “Are We There Yet?,” gave me much more empathy about the situation.
Empathy is the natural byproduct of exposure. For example, a year ago, the attention to the refugee crisis spiked after a photo of a dead boy being carried by a man made the news. (Click here and scroll down to the middle of the page if you wish to see it.)
Suddenly, we felt empathy—we were able to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. When we were exposed to that photo, were able to imagine ourselves as the parents of that young child.
Similarly, last month, the stunned, bloodied face of a 5-year-old boy, rescued from the rubble after a bomb in Syria, made the crisis there seem more real. (Click here if you want to see that photo I imagine you have seen.)
As recently sainted Mother Teresa said, “If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”
Just as I was writing this post, I read an article about the current U.S. presidential campaign, and why many people have been drawn to messages that appear to most people as bigoted or racist. The writer mentioned an analysis of the zip codes of people who expressed those strong views and found racial isolation. He mentioned contact theory, which I googled. According to this excerpt from Wikipedia:
(Contact) theory states that under appropriate conditions interpersonal contact is one of the most effective ways to reduce prejudice between majority and minority group members. If one has the opportunity to communicate with others, they are able to understand and appreciate different points of views involving their way of life. As a result of new appreciation and understanding, prejudice should diminish.
As I said before, empathy is a natural byproduct of exposure, which also makes exposure a powerful antidote to hate.
When I was visiting my son in Detroit earlier in the summer, and we were driving through nearby Dearborn, Michigan, I saw a little girl in a hijab riding a bike in her driveway. I felt sadness as I imagined that innocent little girl potentially being subjected to anti-Muslim venom. And I thought to myself, if only everyone with hate in their hearts could be exposed to sweet little scenes like this, perhaps the hate would leave their hearts.
Are you looking for ways to have exposure to people who are different than you in some way? Have you seen it enhance your ability to put yourself in their shoes? Please join the conversation with your comments…