I'm feeling a little bit despondent about the news of this past week, and even more so because of the responses I've seen to said news. It seems I can't turn in any direction without hearing about the Gorilla Harambe from the Cincinnati Zoo who was shot and killed when a child fell into his enclosure. The events were certainly tragic, but what saddens me even more than the tragedy of losing a beautiful, endangered animal is the lack of empathy I see everywhere in the response to this situation. Yes- I 've seen plenty of empathy for Harambe, and rightly so, but I've seen so little for the human beings involved in this terrible accident. I have read so many accounts of people on social media and in the news crucifying the mother of the young boy, criticizing what they feel must have been her unsuitable parenting, and even suggesting that the zoo should have just waited to see what would happen - after all, that boy and his mother brought the whole thing on themselves.
I see so little empathy for this woman, who already has certainly been emotionally damaged for life by having to helplessly watch her son being harmed by a wild animal, not knowing if he would survive. I have seen so few people who have acknowledged that there is not a parent alive who has the ability to stare at their children every moment, because we are all human, we all get distracted, we all have moments where we look away. Not to mention that truly neglectful parents - criminally neglectful, as commenters seem to be accusing this mother of being -rarely make the effort to bring their children to a zoo in the first place.
People shake their heads in disgust at this mother, while children - human children - are murdered every day by adults who should certainly know better. This selective outrage and lack of empathy for our fellow man concerns me, especially when we are facing an election where one of the primary candidates seems to be succeeding, in large part, because of his refusal to express empathy for anyone. Why? Why is so much of our country and our society seemingly so focused on blame and anger and hate and so unwilling to empathize with our fellow men and women?
I'm sure there are plenty of explanations for this current social phenomenon: Lack of intimacy due to overuse of social media and screen time, lack of family, community, and a support "village," idolization of fame over talent - the list could go on. But one thing that has declined over the past several decades and that I know from personal experience forces people to think empathetically is exposure to the arts. Arts are rarely taught in schools as a core subject, and most Americans have little to no exposure to anything artistic other than perhaps watching television. I've written many articles about how this affects artists, and how we have a responsibility to work towards changing society's perception of our art forms one person at a time. But how, specifically, does exposure to the arts create empathy?
I've had the good fortune to perform in the Opera "Dead Man Walking" based on Sister Helen Prejean's book of the same title in three separate productions in Colorado, California, and Louisiana, and finally got the meet Sister Helen herself this past spring when I was performing the piece with The New Orleans Opera. The opera details what Sister Helen recounts in her book, which is her true story of spiritually advising and accompanying death row inmates to their executions. One of the main plot points of the operatic retelling is the despair felt by the parents of the murdered teenagers, knowing that their children's killer was receiving spiritual counseling and assistance from someone after what he did. I understand completely how any parent who had a child taken from them would have this reaction, and I felt the same way when I first started to learn the role, knowing I would be portraying Sister Helen. How and why would she counsel these people who seemingly had no redeeming qualities, and who committed such heinous, unforgivable acts?
But what I learned from taking the journey of playing Sister Helen, and from meeting her in person, is the same thing that the audience learns as they watch and relive her experiences as a live piece of music theater; that with empathy comes forgiveness, and with forgiveness comes peace, truth and humanity. One can know that these things are true, but when one experiences these emotions through music and drama, or through literature, film or art, one cannot help but come to a different understanding of the human condition.
Art not only allows, it often forces us to understand how it feels to be someone else. Art takes us on a journey that allows us to experience someone else's reality in a way that can be transformative. My experience with working with children and teaching them music is that anything artistic becomes communal, and they tend to want to work together and support one another when they are encouraged to be creative. I have also seen adults transformed by the power or art, including audience members who witnessed productions of Dead Man Walking and were able to find some peace regarding a tragic situation in their personal life as a result of witnessing and experiencing someone else's emotional and spiritual journey.
This is an entirely unscientific observation, but the artists I meet tend to be a particularly empathetic group of people. It makes sense that creativity would lead to empathy because it requires a great deal of self reflection and commitment to something outside oneself, so this is no great surprise. However, I believe that people who consume art also tend towards empathy because experiencing art requires that we step outside of ourselves as well, to experience the creative perspective of another person, whether we agree with it, appreciate it, or think it stinks. People who consume art are available for discourse, are willing to discuss things, and are able to see that their opinions, their feelings, and their experience may not be the one and only truth.
It's no coincidence that fascist and totalitarian governments seek to suppress and stifle creativity and use censorship to control the population. Creativity leads to free thinking, and specifically encourages empathy, which those attempting to control a population do not want to encourage. So we, as a free society must support communities where arts and culture flourish.
How exactly? If you are a struggling artist, know that your work is not in vain and keep creating. If you are an arts appreciator, continue to support and patronize your local arts organization. If you don't experience arts and culture because you think you can't afford it, know that most arts organizations offer free events, and attending those events is still a way to support the organization because institutions need community attendance in addition to financial support. If you're a parent, show your child a video of an opera or a ballet, or show them Gene Kelly Tap Dancing in Singing in the Rain if you can't bring them to a live event or a museum. Let your school know that you support arts education and if your school doesn't offer any, find out what your local cultural institutions offer for kids and families and participate.
And perhaps most importantly - if you are an artist or someone who appreciates the arts, find someone in your life who doesn't and bring them into the fold. Change happens one person at a time, and the arts and artists can and do change the world.