Friday, October 17, 2014

The Beholder's Eye

This photo has been making the rounds on Facebook since late March.  It was originally posted, as near as I can determine, by a Dr. Farrah Gray,  here.  The young woman pictured was apparently bullied on a regular basis in school and elsewhere, and Dr. Gray asked those on Facebook to like the photo and share it to help her feel better.

She has a skin disease called Vitiligo that affects the skin's pigmentation. Michael Jackson suffered from this disease along with many other people. Anyone can have this disease, and it is most noticeable in people with darker skin.  Its cause is unknown.  It's most likely an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks and destroys the cells responsible for skin pigmentation.

I don't know anything else about this young woman.  As requested, I liked the photo and shared it to my timeline.  Most of my Facebook friends who responded to it were kind, compassionate, concerned.  Except one man.  He shocked me by saying she was ugly, asking what I hoped to accomplish with this photo, and calling it "clickbait."  I tried to find out if there was any compassion in his heart, any concern for his fellow human, but no.  His last post on the subject was "Tell it like it is."


This man's response may be how some people think but most would not actually write this opinion online where it will remain forever or say it aloud. The thing that nags at me after this Facebook exchange is this: if an individual cannot see beauty in another person, can that individual feel sympathy or especially empathy for that person? Do women feel empathy for others more than men?

Tough questions, perhaps, but I believe empathy is crucial for a society to function peacefully and productively, and for sovereign nations to coexist peacefully and productively. We need empathy in order to survive. So what is it?

Scout and Atticus (Mary Badham and Gregory Peck)
There's a scene in the movie To Kill a Mockingbird that beautifully describes empathy. Young Scout Finch asked her father, Atticus, why he was defending the Black man who'd been accused of sexually assaulting a white woman. He told her there were a number of reasons, but mainly it was so that he could hold up his head around town. He went on to say that she'd hear a lot of ugly stuff about the trial and him, but he didn't want her to fight over it.  Then:
"If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it." 
THAT is the definition of empathy. If you can imagine yourself as the other person, comprehending his or her point of view on the world, feeling his or her feelings, understanding his or her experiences, then you are being empathetic.

Is it enough to be sympathetic?  Sympathy is not empathy.  Sympathy is felt from a distance, outside and away from the other person, and is simply feeling sorry for her. To be sympathetic to a cause means to be open to it and feel positive toward it. Sympathy does not engage the imagination in the way empathy does.

I firmly believe that every human on the planet possesses a functioning imagination. We use the imagination everyday, whether it's to daydream about something or someone, to solve a problem, or to write a novel or symphony. I don't think humans could survive without the imagination. So when someone claims to not have imagination, or the imagination to do something, I am highly skeptical. He may not know how to use the imagination in specific ways, but he still has imagination's power.  He just needs to learn how to use it.

Imagine being the young woman in the photo above.  What is she thinking in the photo?  Feeling?  Does she have a good heart?  What are her dreams?  The person I see in that photo is a young, sensitive woman, who loves bright colors, music, and being out with her friends.  I think she is empathetic.  Why? Usually people who suffer a physical or psychological trauma in childhood can easily imagine themselves in another person's skin. And I think she is beautiful.  

There's a saying "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." But there's also more to "beauty" than meets the eye.... 


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