Each of us is the center of our own universe defined by unique experiences that form varying perspectives. The self-centered part in each of us has been evolutionarily implanted for survival purposes. However, the mark of a “sophisticated,” “first-world” society may be empathy.
The luxury to understand and share the feelings of another is rare in this world. According to UNICEF, 22,000 children die each day due to poverty. And they “die quietly in some of the poorest villages on earth, far removed from the scrutiny and the conscience of the world.”
In villages where death incessantly lurks in the background, one’s own survival must take priority over the pain and suffering of others. Yet, those who have so little are too often the ones who give the most.
College 2014 graduate Dau Jok, this year’s College Commencement student speaker, commented on this observation. A Penn basketball player and philosophy major from South Sudan, Jok took an unconventional path to Penn, which included gargantuan challenges such as losing his father when he was six to Sudan’s second civil war.
During Jok’s speech, he recounted his time on Hillel’s Alternate Break Trip to Rwanda in 2011. There, he and fourteen other students visited the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, which housed children orphaned by the Rwandan genocide.
Jok explained, “Each Tuesday, the youth let go of their past to give to a community that has even less than they do … they are more concerned with the well-being of their brothers and sisters than of their own past … their humility and integrity exceeded anything that I have seen in sports or heard about in Silicon Valley or Wall Street.”
The children of the ASYV — those who have suffered great injustices — are also those most willing to understand others’ problems.
So if those facing nearly insurmountable obstacles can empathize, why do we so often witness the privileged paralyzed in this capacity? And if understanding exists in “sophisticated” societies, why is it most often for a cause personally affecting the empathizer?
These reflections may be age-old. However, they slapped me across the face during some recent experiences in the LGBT community that jolted me out of my self-centered universe. I realized that while I empathized with this group’s challenges, I never really understood until I walked a mile in someone else’s shoes.
Since coming to Penn, I have grown affectionately accustomed to the freedom of speech and thought. So much so that, when venturing out into Philadelphia, I am crudely reminded of the stark contrast between the real world’s bigotry and acceptance within the Penn bubble.
While out on the town with my LGBT friend, I was shocked at the number of unpleasant incidences that occurred because of how people perceived my friend. From catcalls to name-calling, the hatred came in many forms.
I was not simply angry or sad; I was deeply depressed because all we could do was walk away … if we wanted to walk away alive. For any action in opposition could be life-threatening.
When I wanted to speak out, Dietrich Bonhoeffer crossed my mind. A German philosopher and outspoken anti-Nazi dissident, he wrote: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” He was executed by hanging on April 9, 1945, just two weeks before the Allied forces liberated the concentration camp in which he was imprisoned.
Helplessness. Weakness. Fear. But worst of all — hopelessness plagues the LGBT community in many instances.
The only prospect of a brighter future for this, and many other afflicted communities is empathy. As Dau Jok powerfully urged, “Be a champion [by] respecting life even when it is difficult and empowering those around you even when you are at your weakest. Be the lantern to someone’s dark path. Be the water for someone facing an inferno.”
I admit that indeed, it took my personal involvement in this issue to elicit my deep empathy. Once the realization hit that my true understanding for most issues has extended only as far as personal experience, I intend to make an active effort to open my mind and heart to all those suffering in silence. If the children of ASYV can do it, we can too.
Marjorie Ferrone is a College junior from Houston studying geology. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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