I Think It Might Be Empathy

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This is the winning entry for the Student category of The Fetzer Institute -- Sustained Dialogue Empathy Essay Contest.

Of late, I have experienced a certain recurring sensation, one of dissonance, vulnerability and courage. I am not sure what it is but I think it might be empathy.

Calling me opinionated is an understatement. I can rarely resist an opportunity to engage. Easily 30 percent of my time in college has been spent in corners of dining halls and on futons in friends' rooms, talking about topics ranging from the merits of social choice funds to the evolutionary purpose of our discolored areolas.

One night I was engaged in such a dialogue with my roommate, who was no stranger to these encounters. We had gone from good nights to the interaction of hate-crime laws and racism in America. He asserted that people of color were stereotyped as more homophobic and thus more likely to commit hate crimes, and this image consequently served as yet another way to imprison us. I did not agree. The dialogue quickly became a debate. He and I are usually aligned but when we are not, he loves to qualify my points as "normatively" correct -- he likes to think he's the radical one. Nonetheless, I quoted statistics and made philosophically sound assumptions -- I even used his own assertions to problematize his initial claim; I was ostensibly winning. Then out of nowhere, I became acutely aware of his non-verbals -- his flared nostrils and tense muscles; there was just a general deflation of his being. These were clearly biological responses to feeling threatened. I began considering the implications of my position: "Is it important to be right, right now?" I asked myself.

This conversation was not about statistics or innovative argumentative strategies; it was about the lived experiences of some gay people of color, a group to which my friend belonged. I suddenly felt very open -- not only in the sense that I was more willing to accept his assertions; I became so aware of my insensitivity that I felt Adam-and-Eve naked. I, the economics concentrator, who constantly criticizes how much gets lost in correlations and betas, was using these unstable categories to invalidate somebody's lived experiences. I could not ignore this realization; I chose to remain exposed, steeping in this bizarre sensation of dissonance, vulnerability, and courage.

The image of walking in someone else's shoes is such a pervasive conception of empathy. I believe it has at once helped and hindered my understanding of these sensations. My experience that night showed me that you do not have to attempt walking to empathize -- just trying to fit into someone else's shoes can be quite jarring. There is a dissonance in realizing that you have different but valid claims and a vulnerability begging that you accept this truth. It does not demand pity but rather courage. I will never know what it means to be a gay man of color raised on La Frontera. What I can do is simply step my feet into his shoes by remembering personal encounters that have elicited similarly visceral reactions in me.