Empathy is a word worth thinking about, which is what was going on recently at a Wallingford library discussion. Part of the focus was on word definitions, which is helpful because language, particularly English, is not always straightforward.
I’ll offer a digression:A couple of weeks ago I found myself flummoxed by a headline from the New York Times that contained the words “a historical.” I wanted to make it “an historical.” An investigation led me to Merriam-Webster online, where I came across this remarkable observation:
“In the eternal, and generally fruitless, quest to find some way to make English make sense, many people look for simple rules to apply to our language.”
English is like weight control for some people; you’re never done struggling with it, and I found the dictionary observation somewhat encouraging, in the sense of not feeling alone when it comes to uncertainty. An answer to the “a historic” versus “an historic” question is that it’s a matter of pronunciation, which you might not find helpful at all.
I was thinking about this while reading Karla Santos’ Record-Journal story about the word empathy, and how the word was used to help explore matters of racial concern in a recent program at the Wallingford Public Library. The library has been offering discussions concerning racial issues since the death of George Floyd in 2020.
As Santos reported, Aqua Drakes and Katie Burton, the representatives from Drakes & Burton Consulting, which is leading library discussions, explored the meaning of empathy, as in “how do words cultivate feelings of empathy?” An example is the difference between the phrases “this person is homeless” and “this person is experiencing homelessness.”
The aforementioned Merriam-Webster online defines empathy as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”
That’s a mouthful. You could also say empathy is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. I think of the song “There But for Fortune,” by Phil Ochs, the protest singer of the 1960s I admired greatly. Here’s part of the song, which was made more well-known by Joan Baez: “Show me an alley, show me a train / Show me a hobo who sleeps out in the rain / And I’ll show you a young man with many reasons why / And there but for fortune may go you or I.”
Empathy seems in short supply. Maybe you can blame it on the internet and social media, maybe you can blame it on divisive politics. In a recent piece headlined “The pandemic exposed our empathy deficit,” Times columnist Charles M. Blow asked, “will we behave differently and do better, will we care for people rather than cuff them or will we resort to the response we too often have — of not allowing ourselves to truly register need so that we don’t have to truly contend with it?”
Empathy is on display as municipalities decide how best to spend allotments of federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act. There are disagreements, certainly, but look at what people are arguing about: How best to help people.
That’s exercising our empathy muscles, and we could use a good workout regimen.
Reach Jeffery Kurz at firstname.lastname@example.org.