Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Empathy: an ex-student's path to discovery

For some years Ken and I co-taught an upper level undergraduate course called Biology, Evolution and Society.  It was a small seminar course, and almost invariably the students wanted to be there and were bright, interested and engaged.  Some have gone off to medical or veterinary school, some to law school, some on in anthropology or history, and we still hear from a number of them.

One of our ex-students is currently just finishing his first year as a Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay.  He writes a blog called Tones of Home about his thoughts and experiences in a small Guarani village there, and it is always interesting and always thought-provoking.  His June 18 post, however, is more than that -- it is a reminder of how thoroughly his current world is not our world.  Indeed, in this post, and in the blog in general, he chronicles his path to a deeper empathy than anything he could ever have learned in school.  Our concerns about open access journals or the meaning of gossip or the appropriate uses of genetics and direct-to-consumer genotyping are irrelevant to the people he is living and working with now.  

This is not to trivialize these concerns.  They are real and can have real effects on people's lives, but in the overall scheme of things, we don't always remember how privileged we are to be worrying about these things rather than about whether we can scrape together enough money to get the antibiotics to save our 4 year old's life.  To a great extent we are 'privileged' because we assign  privilege to ourselves by not having enough empathy, and instead finding endless reasons to rationalize inequity in our favor.

Thanks, Mario.  You're an inspiration.


Martha said...

I certainly agree that we are very privileged and don't spend much time thinking about it on a day to day basis when we are centered so much on our own private interests and desires and frustrations. But, could you elaborate a little bit more on your last sentence about privilege and empathy. I would like to understand more about this.

Anne Buchanan said...

This was perhaps an imperfect way to say that those of us with resources and control over resources and who gets them, have set the system up so that we maintain that command and control. This is at great cost to those who have less than we do. if we had more empathy, the kind of empathy Mario wrote of in his blog post, we wouldn't let ourselves do it. But it's a rare person of privilege who will let it go.

'We' could mean the 1% vs the 99% of the Occupy movement here in the US, or on a larger scale the US and Europe, who use a disproportionate fraction of the world's natural resources vs poor countries. Wherever people rationalize and justify having and keeping more. I do not exempt myself.