The Labyrinth of Empathy (Part 2)

Yesterday in Part 1 I wrote about empathy and touched upon the early life of Edith Stein. In Part 2 I’m going to expand on this trait and discuss the dearth of it today.

I was in a situation once, so close to becoming a zombie, that I was afraid I might drop my bowl and lose my food. My friends helped me hold on to the bowl so I knew, and everyone did, the importance of the bowl. And you see it in the pictures. It’s everywhere. We never parted from our bowls. When soup was served no one wanted to go first and no one wanted to go last. The first people in line get only water because the cook didn’t feel like stirring the soup. Those in the middle at least got some beets. Nobody wanted to be at the end of the line because the dirt from the beets settled to the bottom of the kettle. Our water was so contaminated it wasn’t fit to drink. So we waited for the rain or snow in order to catch something drinkable or even to wash with. At night our bowl became a pillow, and a toilet. Usually there was no time to clean it in the morning before the so-called coffee was served. Then it became our wash basin. It was with us at all times, day and night. So the importance of possessing a bowl can’t possibly be exaggerated. Whoever lost his bowl basically lost his life. Bowls were precious. 

bowl_mealtime_labyrinth

The above text begins at approximately the 9:20 mark of this video, a special on the making of the documentary The Labyrinth.

Marian Kolodziej was on one of the first transports to enter Auschwitz and was given number 432. He survived five years imprisonment and never spoke of his experience until after a serious stroke in 1993. He began rehabilitation by doing pen-and-ink drawings depicting his horrific experience. His drawings and art installations, which he called The Labyrinth, fill the large basement of a church near Auschwitz. Through the blending of his testimony and graphic drawings, this documentary explores the memories and nightmares that were buried for years. (www.thelabyrinthdocumentary.com)

Marian was in the same roll call and cell block as Fr. Maximilian Kolbe, who voluntarily took the place of a prisoner condemned to death and was subsequently executed. This self-less act became legendary in Auschwitz and inspired the entire camp—somehow an act of love and courage stood as a testament to good in the face of overwhelming evil. Marian’s numerous drawings of Kolbe are stark and iconographic. Kolbe is now a saint in the Catholic Church. (Admin: He is also the patron of this blog.)

*****

We have forgotten so much. Ever since I can remember and especially in my college history classes (I was a history major) I can recall being asked the question and asking it myself: Does man learn from history? Is he capable of change, or is he doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past in an endless cycle?

NKstarvingboy

A starving 10-year old boy sits slumped on a curb as a truck laden with grain idles nearby. (photo: The Mirror)

I’m only 45, but I feel so old. Old and tired. Because the answer to that question is beginning to crystallize in my mind is “No.” No he does not learn. Yes, he is capable of change. He is capable of great and beautiful things. But pride, greed, anger, lust…continue to have dominion over him. We cast a glance outside of ourselves for perhaps a moment, mutter a “tsk tsk, how awful” and in the same breath demand “what we got coming to us” when there are those around us who, like Marian Kolodziej, want a bowl. I considered including photos of real human rights violations with this post. Photos of Kermit Gosnell’s victims. Of the mass graves of tortured and burned victims in Sri Lanka, Egypt, Syria. Prisoners beaten and starved to death in China and Cuba. (Cuba: that leftist paradise that Jay-Z and Beyonce enjoyed this past week, ignorant fools that they are.) We may like to tell ourselves that the images of horror drawn by Marian Kolodziej are relics of a distant past. They are not. They are with us today and a glance at how we communicate and talk to each other online and through those politicians we favor indicates that new ones will follow.

Here is where I have a problems with how we use the Internet. An advance made by mankind that instead of uniting humanity seems to have created deeper divisions. Tim Glemkowski captures it better than I can in his piece The Internet Ruins Everything:

The beauty of community is that it can literally drag the best out of us. An authentic communio personarum is what it is all about, baby. Real community gives us an opportunity to highlight and have affirmed what is best about us while having our edges chipped off. Like iron sharpens iron. Even some of the bitter aspects of person-to-person interaction, for instance the difficulties of community life in monasteries, became occasions of incredible holiness for many of the great saints. …

The spiritual practice of lectio divina flies in the face of this gorging of ourselves on information that we, the people of Web 2.0, love. Instead of inhaling the words and opinions of fellow (beloved, but) sin-sick souls, we bask in the Words of Love Himself.

The key, as with so many things in the spiritual life, is moderation and discernment. Catholics don’t have to stay away from the Internet. They just need to remember that they’re swimming upstream.

This is why I spent my Lent teaching a class of fifty people at my parish about lectio divina. It has helped me immensely with my moderating time spent and things absorbed online. I admit I have entertained the notion several times to leave Facebook, shut down this blog, and simply read, pray and journal privately because at times I feel it is all I can handle. But I’d miss the sense of community. Yes, I prefer time spent alone in reading or meditation or even prayer. By using lectio and making that time a priority I am able to “bask in the Words of Love Himself.” For as long as I am able I will continue to write about those things the world wishes to be swept under the rug and I will continue to fight back with love if necessary. I realize this is counter to our culture but so is the man whom I choose to imitate: Jesus Christ.

Simply put: in order to be a better member of my community I must first be a better “me”.

Earlier this week Heather King wrote:

We’re called to make our faith public, not partisan. Here’s a question recently posed by a friend: “If you were accused of being a Christian – say Catholic, if you wish – would there be enough evidence to convict you?”

Nobody’s going to persecute us for being a Democrat or a Republican. Those things are toothless (in addition, at this point, to being virtually identical). They require no real risk.

My faith is public. My life in Christ is hidden, but my faith, my abhorrence of war, abortion, capital punishment, the prison industry, pornography; my views on the sanctity of marriage, my deep love for the Church are all a matter of public record. I’ve written books about it. I blog about it. I speak about it. I take a constant public stand and the stand is Christ.

It is because of our human failings that the internet, when not taken in moderation, seems so fractured. Irony, sarcasm, mean-spiritedness and a genuine lack of empathy exist to be sure. What galls me about the bulk of it is that it is a politically-expedient outrage for the most part that I see in the comboxes or on social media. If you lean left politically, you tend to sympathize with issues from that arena. The same goes for those on the right. BOTH often with blinders on at the expense of the other side of the aisle. It is increasingly alarming to me the fact that we are dehumanizing one another more easily now while sitting behind the safety of a keyboard. Life as reality television or a video game.

*****

Edith Stein c.1925

Edith Stein c.1925

Edith Stein found her way into the Catholic Church after spending an evening reading an autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila. “When I had finished the book, I said to myself: This is the truth.” This brilliant feminist and intellectual philosopher was baptized in 1922 and after spending the next eleven years as a professor, lecturer and author. In 1933 when darkness broke out over Germany she joined a Carmelite convent and became Sister Teresia Benedicta a Cruce (Teresa, Blessed of the Cross) after her investiture in April 1934.

When she made her eternal profession on April 21, 1938, she had the words of St. John of the Cross printed on her devotional picture: “Henceforth my only vocation is to love.” On New Year’s Eve 1938 she was smuggled across the border to a Carmelite Convent in the Netherlands due to the Aryan anti-Jewish laws passed in Germany. On August 2, 1942, while she was in in the chapel with other sisters she was arrested by the Gestapo. She, along with her sister Rosa, herself a nun as well, were given five minutes to report. She turned to Rosa and said “Come, we are going for our people.”

On August 7th 987 Jews were deported to Auschwitz. Two days later Edith, her sister Rosa and many others were gassed. Their ashes were scattered to the winds by the crematorium smokestack, and by the failures of men determined to repeat history’s mistakes.

EMPATHY
1. the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it.
2. 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.

God made us for companionship. He created us for communion with Himself and with our human family. Among the things that divide us is a lack of consideration…of empathy…for others. It is that bridge to far that must be traversed. As that 80s icon Rick Springfield sang “we all need a human touch.” (Didn’t see that one coming did ya? Me neither.) We seem to have forgotten what unites us and instead place the emphasis on what divides. The twentieth century proved again and again the horror of what results from that line of thought. My goal is to readjust my writing towards unity and the politics of love. Tough love when necessary. But love/charity nonetheless.

Before an audience of 30,000 people in St. Peter’s Square on Wednesday, Pope Francis said Christians have an obligation to be “visible, clear, brilliant signs of hope” because sadness and the temptation to despair is strong in today’s world. In 2011 Heather ended my favorite post on her blog with this:

And write this in blood, on your heart:

“To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda or even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery; it means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.” – Cardinal Emmanuel Célestin Suhard, Archbishop of Paris 1940-1949

_____

Photo credit from North Korea: The Mirror

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One thought on “The Labyrinth of Empathy (Part 2)

  1. Unfortunately, people are selfish not just on the internet, or just because of the internet. I think many people feel life has dealt them a bad hand and this gives them permission to think of only themselves. They are deserving of everyone else’s caring because they have a bad life. And then they are selfish and only see people out to make their life difficult or people trying to show that they are better, whether others are or not.

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