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The Power of Empathy

Story ID:10371
Written by:Suzana Margaret Megles (bio, contact, other stories)
Story type:Musings, Essays and Such
Location:various various
Year:2015
Person:Roman Krznaric
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Today I reread an excellent post called Empathy Heroes which was written by Roman
Krznaric. It appeared in the Yes! Magazine in November of 2014. It was so refreshing to
read this post again- especially after signing my quota of petitions today which paints a
sad picture of our world which seems to have way too many cruel people in it. One man
dragged a small dog behind his truck, an elephant in Vietnam expired after complete
exhaustion from providing rides for visitors, a young bear with a ring in his nose is
forced to dance for people who have no sense of kindness and compassion. The list
goes on and on, and maybe you - as I sign petitions like this everyday.

Krznaric relates the accounts of five extraordinary people who had what he calls
“experiential empathy,” These people didn’t just imagine someone else’s life- but rather
immersed themselves into the lives of those who they felt deserved their empathy.

He wrote a book entitled “Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It.” Here is a
condensed version of his list of five people who took empathy to the extreme. Because
they did, they were able to transform the social and political landscape of their time.

l. Not surprisingly ST. FRANCIS tops his list. He relates something about him of which I
wasn’t aware until now. In 1206- 23 year- old Giovanni Bernadone went on a pilgrimage
to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. He quickly noticed the contrast between the opulent St.
Peter’s within and the extreme poverty of the beggars sitting outside. It didn’t take him
long to ask one of the beggars to change clothes with him so that he could spend the rest
of the day begging for alms. And rightly does Krznaric calls this one of the first great empathy
experiments in human history. How many of us would even think of doing this?
Krznaric writes that how his empathy for the poor led St Francis to found a religious
order whose mission was to work for them as well as for the lepers. They were also to
give up their worldly goods to live in poverty like those they served. Yes, I love this about St.
Francis but Krznaric fails to mention his great empathy for the birds of the air, the fishes in
the sea, and the animals on land. In my opinion, there are many people who may well
empathize with the suffering human condition, but comparatively few who feel deeply and
and empathize with the ever prevalent issues of animal suffering.

2. BEATRICE WEBB. Born in 1858 into a family of well-off businessmen and politicians, she
nevertheless became interested in researching urban poverty. In 1887 her dedication to this
research led her to dress up in the clothing of the poor so that she could find employment in
an East London textile factory. With this first hand experience, she wrote “Pages From a
Work-Girl’s Diary” which caused a sensation at the time.
She later wrote in her autobiography of her experience: “My own investigations into the
chronic poverty of our great cities opened my eyes to the workers’ side of the story.” Because
of this empathy immersion, she was inspired to campaign for improved factory conditions.
She also supported the cooperative and trade union movements. And though we don’t often
find people of wealth who commiserate with the poor, she was one great exception. If only
we would find others like her in today’s unequal division of wealth. But of course, thank God
today’s conditions can never compare to the urban poverty which she found prevalent in the 19th
century.

3. JOHN HOWARD GRIFFIN. I had heard of Griffin before, and probably many of you have
as well. At least he is a contemporary of some of us. In 1959 this white Texas-born man
wondered what it would like to be an African American living in the segregated Deep South.
And so, with the blessing of the Sepia monthly magazine editors who sponsored this experiment,
he dyed his skin black using both sun lamps and pigment-darkening medication.
He then spent six weeks traveling and working in Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, and South
Carolina where no one ever guessed of his deception.
Of this experience he wrote: “Working as a shoeshine boy in New Orleans, he was struck by
how white people stared through him without acknowledging his presence. He experienced the
everyday indignities of segregation, such as walking miles to a place to use the toilet, and was
subject not just to verbal abuse but to the threat of physical violence. “
He wrote a best selling book called “Black Like Me” wherein he reflects that if only we could
put ourselves in the shoes of others- we might then become aware of the injustices of discrimination
and every kind of prejudice to humanity. What a beautiful truth and what a beautiful man.

4. In 1983 GUNTHER WALLRAFF, a German investigative journalist, spent two years undercover
as a Turkish immigrant worker. Krznaric considers this venture one of the most extreme
immersions of the 20th Century.
He wore dark contact lenses and a black hairpiece. He adopted a broken German accent and
labored on a succession of backbreaking jobs. He unblocked toilets on building sites that were
ankle-deep in urine. He shoveled coke dust at a steel factory without a protective mask. This would
leave him with lifelong chronic bronchitis. Of this experience, he wrote that it was not the 19th
century working conditions- but rather the humiliation of being treated as a second – class citizen by
“native “ Germans.
Later he wrote a book about these apartheid-like conditions which he had experienced as well as
other foreign workers in Germany. This revelation led to criminal investigations of firms using illegal
labor. It resulted in improved conditions for contract workers in several German states. His work
demonstrated the power of experimental empathy for uncovering social inequality which would be
later used by other investigative reporters.

5. PATRICIA MOORE. U.S. product designer Patricia Moore used empathy to cross the generational
gulf. In the 1970s when she was 26 she dressed up as an 85 year-old- woman to discover what life
was like as an elder. To do this she used makeup that made her look aged. She put on fogged-up
glasses so she couldn’t see properly, and she wrapped her limbs and hands with splints and bandages
to simulate arthritis. She even wore uneven shoes which made her hobble.
I smiled at her description of an 85 year-old because I am an octogenarian. However, I am glad to
report that it doesn’t describe me. My glasses aren’t clouded, and I do not need wraps for my limbs
and hands -because thank God, I do not suffer from arthritis. I believe it is my vegan lifestyle which
has spared me this suffering. And while my gait is slow and measured, I don’t think I “hobble.” Of
course, I imagine her depiction of an 85 year-old then and even perhaps now is pretty accurate.
I admired her greatly because for THREE long years she used this disguise trying to walk up and
down subway stairs, having to open department store doors, and use can openers with her bound
hands. She exhibited well what the ravages of time does to us and as my mother would often say –
Old age is no joy.
And the result of these three years of suffering? She took product design in a completely new
direction. She invented new products for use by elders. One of these was the thick rubber-handled
potato peelers and other utensils which can easily be used by people with arthritic hands. How
beautiful that a 26 year-old would care so deeply for the older generation. She even later became
an influential campaigner for the rights of senior citizens helping to get the “Americans With
Disabilities Act” enacted as law.
Her empathy for people also led her to design rehabilitation centers for U.S. war veterans with
missing limbs or brain injuries so they can relearn to live independently. Truly Moore is one caring,
empathic lady.

To Krznaric’s wonderful listing of people with empathy, I would like to add a group to which we can
all proudly belong and that is the group of ETHICAL VEGANS. No class of people of which I know today
has shown more empathy for the chickens in battery cages, the cows in never ending milking lines, the
mother pigs in confining gestation crates, and the male veal calves in tiny confining crates. Recently, I
viewed again a saved picture of a veal calf wedged in a crate and I could only think how horrible was
the suffering of this innocent baby calf because of the cruel people who would do this to him for money
and profit. Of course, the people who ordered a veal dinner aren’t much better in my view either.

When I die, I would be proud to have written on my tombstone – Ethical Vegan. For me, these two words
speak volumes. For me, they spell EMPATHY.