Misadventures in Being Myself


In my early years as an undergrad, my friends and I were very into personality tests. We spent way too many Saturday mornings taking Buzzfeed quizzes when we should have been studying, discussed our Myers-Briggs results in depth, and cringed together over our StrengthsQuest results. Inevitably, we bickered over who was actually which Pixar character or what office supply. In the case of the MBTI, this lead to making fun of each other’s “NF moments” (like crying in Western Civ class, as I’m apparently very fond of blogging about), or mutual eye-rolling at the differences between my decidedly P-lifestyle in the midst of my more J-leaning friend group. And I can hardly go an entire weekend without remembering my friend’s smirk as she pointed out that I was an introvert with Includer as one of my top Strengths.

The first time I read a description of the INFP in high school, my only reaction was tears. Finally, here in this Wikipedia article, of all places, I found the assurance of understanding that I’d longed for from every relationship I’d pursued, every journal entry I’d written, and every fandom I’d pledged myself to. Not only did I feel understood in all the things I had never even considered about myself, but also this article’s very existence validated mine. Because my experience had even been thought of by someone else, someone else must have shared that experience. My existence must somehow be okay.

Personality types also helped me better understand others: that guy probably annoys me because he’s so aggressively E, or I don’t see the world quite the same as that person with a strong S. Of course the scientific validity of such indicators will be debated for aeons to come, not least impacted by how trends change. But at least in the case of my friends and I, MBTI gave us a common language to convey our needs and desires when we lived together.

Oddly, the more I retreated into my identity as expressed by any number of personality descriptors, the more trapped I felt. And maybe my understanding of how personality typing works is just subconsciously flawed: of course I understand that the populace of the world isn’t just 16 persons reincarnated into billions of bodies strewn across the planet. Of course people are more complex than four letters or five strengths, and there are exceptions, backstories, and spectrums to every type. I understand that, at least in theory. In practice, however, I began to make decisions based on who I thought I should be: “I might like studying literature because I have traits that some people express as NF” quickly became “I don’t have to always be around that person because I’m an I,” which escalated into “I shouldn’t make plans because I’m a P.” Explanations became excuses became exemplaries.

I have been known to take things to extremes.

Lately, I’ve had a lot of conversations around the Enneagram. To those unfamiliar, the Enneagram is based off of nine personalities (with variations), and expresses each type’s basic fear, basic desire, key motivations, and the way each type operates in stress and in health. It may or may not come as a surprise that the free online (and totally legitimate, I’m sure) test I took identified me as a Type Nine, the Peacemaker, who fears disconnection while craving harmony. And while I didn’t burst into tears upon reading this description, it did sound spookily familiar.

On one hand, this personality type explains my struggle with all the rest. Nines have difficulty pinning down their own thoughts and emotions. They sometimes long instead to meld with other people and other identities, according to this enlightening podcast from the Liturgists. For me, that manifested in several ways. But most relevant to this post, I took a should/should not mentality toward the way I understood the INFP. If there were an ideal INFP, floating high and Platonic above the shadowy cave of this world, I wanted to become it. That was so much easier than just being me.

Even though the Enneagram helped me understand my understanding of personality indicators (even the Enneagram itself, in some odd, meta way), the moral of the story is not that a set of questions, a few paragraphs, and a list of people who might be like you will solve the longing to be yourself that you feel when a new acquaintance asks you what you do for fun, or when you visit your family to find you’ve changed, or when you make life-altering decisions, wondering what that younger version of you would think of you now. And when I took quizzes, even ones like “Build your dream potato dish and we’ll tell you the name of your future pet iguana,” I searched for these answers in who I thought I was. I wanted to be myself, and for that self to hold some kind of satisfaction that I knew I couldn’t find alone, like cracking open a geode with a hammer because your fist isn’t hard enough. But no personality test can reveal the secret to holism. No construct holds the reconciliation or justification of who I am to strangers, my family, my past. And not just because the MBTI is too simplistic or because the Enneagram is too complicated, or even because Buzzfeed is too ridiculous.

I was looking for answers, satisfaction, in myself. And most of the time, I don’t really know who this “myself” person is.

The sin of Israel, who complained for a king and crowned the tallest person they could find, is mine. The sin of the Pharisees, who made their own laws to feel holy, is mine. The sin of Adam and Eve, who ate fruit to become like God, is mine. And I make up new ways to hide and to atomize and to dethrone. My identity is here, too, in the sins I share.

But in ways beyond my understanding, beyond myself, my identity is in Christ. More than in INFP, in Strengths, in Nine. More than the personalities I try to mold myself into. And certainly more than in my sins. I can identify with Christ not because his personality happens to match mine, like another type, as if the Godhead were a pair of earrings that complemented my eyes. I can identify with him because he identified with me, releasing his own identity and emptying himself to humanity, to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil. 2:5-8). I identify with him because he chose me, and so I choose him instead of the sins of Adam and of Israel and of the Pharisees. I identify with him because I came to the end of myself and there was still no satisfaction, reconciliation, justification (or any other fancy-sounding word, except for maybe humiliation).

And so I empty myself, too.


Jack and Mr. Rogers vs. Widening Gyre of World History


When asked about an event a long ago in her life, my grandma sometimes shakes her head. “I can’t even remember what I had for breakfast this morning,” she’ll say (proverbially, of course, because it is a well-documented fact that the lady loves cinnamon toast). Many of her stories are lost to us now. For her, history is difficult to conceptualize. Along with most of my older relatives, she assures me that my own memory will only grow worse. And it’s true: my own sense of time actively decays, as evidenced by all of my lost pencils, my surprised delight at family photo albums, and my inability to exactly retrace the routes to my old haunts in the cities where I’ve lived.

And those are just my own experiences. Learned history is so much more difficult. I loved my 12-credit-hour, 2-semester-long Western Civilization course in my undergrad, which emphasized history and literature from the Romans to the present day. (Nerd alert.) Of course, it’s impossible to fit so grandiose a subject as “Western Civilization” into a single course, regardless of copious credit hours; it’s impossible to fit it into a single lifetime. Instead, we focused on overarching themes, influential philosophies, and traceable patterns based on events and literature considered important. The pattern that emerged to me, and many others, wasn’t exactly optimistic. The sometimes romantic, often nationalistic, and always mystical William Butler Yeats helps me in expressing some kind of philosophy of time in “The Second Coming” where he famously writes,

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world

. . . .

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

History, to post-war Yeats, is a recurring spiral. But that spiral widens like the falcon, furthering itself from order, from the center, from the thing it is. History (not to mention the cosmos), moves toward disintegration rather than order. It does repeat itself, but in ways more mysteriously horrifying than what has come before: a rough beast instead of a holy infant in Bethlehem.

This vast image out of Spiritus Mundi was handed down to me from a very certain time period after a very certain war. This, I learned, was the mood of the twentieth century, creating the Lost Generation (and spiraling into endless other lost generations), strange artistic movements, and a general loss of faith. And who was I to blame my predecessors for the ennui, the alcoholism, all of the broken coping after World War I? Wilfred Owen assures me that if I could see for myself gas in the trenches, “My friend, you would not tell with such high zest, / To children ardent for some desperate glory, / The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori.” Cause and effect. WWI and modernism. Inevitable. It all fits nicely in the 16-leaf blue book I wrote my exam in.

This simple, entropic vision–my helplessness in Yeats’ gyre–is what I believed as I walked out of my Western Civ final. It was hard not to, there in the wake of other rocking classes, in the midst of important people leaving my life, and with a long summer of serving coffee ahead of me. I read books, when I could, with new knowledge of my place in a world I had just discovered. I quietly observed where writers wrote as expected, staying true to their place in the gyre and perpetuating the falling apart of all things. History grew darker, and predictably so. I had no right to feel happy—especially not when insignificantly good things happened—because happiness had no place. It doesn’t fit in the gyre.

Of course, that isn’t everyone’s experience with the very same material: another reason why history is difficult to conceptualize. Just opening Facebook shows me how different people interpret the same stories, arriving at opposing conclusions. Political discourse, academic essays, and even just conversing with others reinforces the same. And I like to think that courses like Western Civilization don’t simply exist to crush overly-sensitive wanna-be intellectual types. There’s something to be said for the knowing of things, and not all of us walk away with quite the same feeling.

One day in the noisy heat of that summer, I picked up C.S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy from where I’d left off after one distracted Christmas break. In the spiritual autobiography, Lewis traces the story of his conversion. For him–and probably for all of us, if we can see it–that narrative begins in childhood (probably before) and bleeds over into his adult life. So, begrudgingly, he dedicates a chapter to his own experiences in the Great War: the very same one that I had written about whirling like the lost falcon. And while Lewis’ is not the grittily realistic account I anticipated (it actually rings of repression), it stunned me. He, too, had holed up in trenches and lost a generation of peers. He had also seen the unimaginable. Participated in it, even.

But somehow there was goodness. Something good had come out of the Great War and out of the gyre. True, his works are hardly the zeitgeist. But even if it was just Jack Lewis with his myth of a Lion that had carried me through childhood, there was something. And so, I wondered: if one good thing could come out of an event so systemically and deeply horrific, could two good things, or even three good things, come out of the gyre too?

The summer before preschool began, my grandma babysat me in a hedge-enfolded blue cottage at the end of a cul-de-sac. Neither of us recall that time very well anymore, but I do remember sitting at a tiny table with a glass of chocolate milk. As Grandma cut the crust off my peanut butter sandwiches in the kitchen, I was transported to the Land of Make Believe. Admittedly, the puppet Lady Elaine Fairchilde did scare me, but despite my fears, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was there in that cottage, too. Like it had been for my mom as she pretended that the quiet, cardiganed host with his kind attention was her father. Like, I imagine, many of us did.

Fred Rogers, emerging from the context that my Western Civ course told me was full of mistrust of authority, fear of the Other, wartime anxiety, mass media frenzies, and depleting morals, is another anomaly in the gyre. Instead of angry protests, he kindly requested funding from Congress for public television. Instead of inciting fear, he showed children how to learn from the stranger. Instead of telling us how not to feel, he taught us the power of self-control. Instead of buying into the commodification entertainment–the way television began to strip individuality–he saw an opportunity to humanize, to educate, to express.

How Mr. Rogers could exist in the widening trajectory of civilization is, I think, more than mystical.

Jack Lewis and Fred Rogers, like I said before, are hardly the norm. They are marginally known by the masses, celebrated passionately by tiny pockets of society, and not studied nearly as much as they should be. And why should they be, when they represent the opposite of our great historical narratives?

But it’s anomalies like these that convince me that my historical constructs aren’t necessarily real. Not that these figures have no faults (I’m well aware of Lewis’ misogyny–what some, incidentally, dismiss as a product of his times), but they are without some of the common faults of those we hold up as representations of an entire era. Or at least those vices are less evident. Or at least there was some act of grace along the way.

These ought to be remembered as we attempt to contextualize, to educate, to encapsulate. Because, I pray, if the gyre is true, there will at least always be anomalies that point toward the forgotten center. Because whatever my own construct of history, whatever way I make meaning out of the chaos, the Logos is truer and realer and creates more goodness than my tendencies toward oversimplification care to notice.

Said Fred Rogers himself,

A high school student wrote to ask, “What was the greatest event in American history?” I can’t say. However, I suspect that like so many “great” events, it was something very simple and very quiet with little or no fanfare (such as someone forgiving someone else for a deep hurt that eventually changed the course of history). The really important “great” things are never center stage of life’s dramas; they’re always “in the wings.” That’s why it’s so essential for us to be mindful of the humble and the deep rather than the flashy and the superficial.

Humble. Deep. This is the way anomalies appear: a veteran who envisions a faun in the woods, a seminary student fascinated by television, a grandma who doesn’t remember her kindnesses, a child born in Bethlehem; I pray, too, a kid who read Narnia, watched Mister Rogers, and cried in her Western Civ class.

Trying (Not) to be Jesus for Others: A Remarkable Thing to Consider


Like many of the Christian NF-types I know around my age, I (finally) picked up Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. I’d heard a lot of high praise for this epistolary novel of a dying father writing to his young son. And the more I read (and reread) the final pages, the more I realized I was not disappointed by the hype. We could devote an entire series of blog posts to Robinson’s glowing coal of a novel—shining forth, Hopkinesque, with the grandeur of God—and an undergrad course I took actually intended to spend three or four class periods over it. Sadly, that class ran out of time by the end of the year; I suppose I don’t have the time to blog all of my thoughts about it, either.

In those last pages, the ones I relish rereading, John Ames imagines his son as an old man. He cherishes the thought of his son filled with wisdom and experiences and evidence of having loved creation. He blesses the body parts that will trouble him in forty or fifty years—the very same parts that trouble Ames as he imparts his novel-length goodbye. “I wish I could help you carry the weight of many years,” he writes. “But the Lord will have that fatherly satisfaction.” The gap after this sentence in the book, marking the end of the section of text, literally underscores Ames’ impending absence.

Even though this is a passing thought (most of Gilead is, actually), I can’t help but find it a “remarkable thing to consider,” to use Ames’ oft-repeated, almost liturgical, phrase.

I’ve lived most of my life in a way that encouraged dependence. Maybe it stemmed from sibling interactions or loneliness or grade school expectations or pride. Maybe it’s just human depravity. I remember realizing in middle school that while being friends with popular kids was a lost cause, I could easily get other (obviously) lonely people to like me. It became a game in high school. A mode of survival in college. It bled into friendships where I could tell myself I was being loving: listening (a lot), offering advice, giving gifts. And it seemed to start with love.

Soon, the object was not so much loving another person—which involves, of course, another person. The object was myself. Seemingly loving behaviors became vehicles for my feeling affirmed, feeling wanted, feeling needed. None of those feelings are inherently bad, of course. But if, like I did, I preyed on other peoples’ loneliness for the sake of my own gratification, then I really couldn’t call that love anymore.

And the worst thing for those who squandered their dependence on me: I, like every other human, am imperfect (in case the previous paragraphs of my predatory predilection didn’t already make the point). Admitting that sets my teeth on edge almost as much as admitting my mercenary desire to be affirmed. I, even the wizened and bright and compassionate and obviously-humble individual that I am, will let down every single person I happen to come in contact with. I will disappoint. I will say the wrong thing. I will hurt.

I will not be able to provide for their every need. Even on my best day, with the best intentions and all of my resources available, I will be insufficient for even one single human soul.

If only this realization about my own sick self was just one of those cool metaphorical dream sequences in a movie. If only I woke up from it, whistling, and hastily changed my ways. But I think the realest lessons have to come from the realest part of our experience: the part where our hands are lacerated by even the dirt we fall down in, and we can’t look away from the fact that it’s our own damned fault. Over the course of a couple of months, I saw that I had let people down not just by my absences and mistakes—the ways that were immediately apparent—but because I simply and ravenously encouraged dependence on me.

The dying John Ames rightly admits that he can’t bear the burden of years for his son. I think he would have realized that even if he had lived to see his son become an old man himself: he writes only of helping carry, not carrying for him. And so he wisely does not express a desire to somehow absorb his son’s struggles, even if it would make Ames feel the essentiality that I crave. And how can he, when he will be gone?

He writes instead of God having “that fatherly satisfaction.” And in two sentences, he does what has been so difficult for me: he entrusts someone he cannot help to the care of someone who can. Someone transcendent and sufficient. Someone who provides the only rest for hearts that fundamentally seek an object upon which to heap their dependence. Someone who gives meaning to the term “fatherly” and, in fact, “satisfaction.” Someone perfect.

Along with Ames, I must also confess that I can’t bear the weight of many years. I can’t do it for myself, much less another human. I can’t fill those deepest wounds because I’m not meant to be Jesus. (And, sweet freedom, I truly thank God for that.) But because I am meant to be like him, I am not excused from caring for others. The way I imitate him is not by pointing dependent hearts in the direction of myself (the listening, sage, meek, and deeply predatory self). It is by turning my attention, and others’, toward the only Person who deserves the fatherly satisfaction of holding all of the aches in our aging bones and aging souls.

A remarkable thing to consider, indeed.

The Monsters That Remind Us: Empathy, Civil Society, and the English Major


As the sister to two older brothers, I grew up watching a lot of monster movies. My brothers especially loved the old Godzilla films. And when Godzilla 2000 came out, of course my family packed up and went to see one of the first showings. Never mind that I was four years old. Godzilla 2000 has to be one of my earliest childhood memories, which consists largely of closing my eyes in the embrace of my mom and dad. I still have weird dreams about jellyfish aliens; sometimes I swear I can hear the echoing of Godzilla’s roar in the distance. It wasn’t until I watched monster movies later that I came to realize that they have valuable lessons to teach us, even aside from how to hide from three-headed dragons and radioactive moths.

Weird as it sounds, I think that empathy is one of the lessons here. And I don’t just mean for all of the parents who had to comfort frightened children in movie theaters across America.

There are, of course, a myriad of definitions, as well as subcategories, as to what empathy means. It originally came into English from the Greek empatheia, meaning “to feel into.” Aesthetic theorists first used the term to describe “the ability to perceive the subjective experience of another person. The term was later used in psychology by E.B. Titchener, who said that empathy stems from one’s own physical imitation of the pain that another person feels. Empathy, then, is deeper than sympathy in that allows us to feel—or at least attempt to feel—the pain of another person. In a helpful and concise definition, autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen defines empathy as “the drive to identify another person’s emotions and thoughts, and to respond to them with an appropriate emotion.” So this practice is two-fold: identifying the processes of the Other, and then responding appropriately.

Stephen G. Post and Ann Jurecic add extra layers to this concept of empathy. Post, first of all, calls empathy a “force” that is on a sort of spectrum. The feeling of empathy is well and good, but this is a weaker manifestation of the force. For empathy to be “strong,” it must motivate us to do something. Inherent to this strong empathy is the “reliable affirmation of the other [that] requires a conceptual act of valuation—that all human lives have equal worth.” Empathy requires the acknowledgment that my life has the same worth as yours. And when I affirm this, I am even more motivated to “identify another person’s emotions and thoughts, and to respond to them with an appropriate emotion,” as Baron-Cohen says.

Empathy is not always welcome or even helpful. Jurecic writes, “Empathy is not salvation; it’s not certainty or knowledge; it blurs the boundaries in ways that can be both generative and destructive. In the end, empathy is a practice, a process that extends in time. To make it work takes both effort and humility.” Jurecic’s definition of empathy as a practice aligns so far with what the other writers have said. And because empathy depends so much on imagination, it is indeed far from certainty. However, her talk of it as destructive comes from a misapplication of the practice. Sometimes the exercise of empathy causes us to misimagine the Other, to project our own thoughts and emotions onto him instead of accepting him on his own terms. We imagine that we fully understand people when we empathize, when really the process of empathy must be far more open-ended than that: a practice that must be ongoing.

If empathy is an ongoing process that seeks to imagine the thoughts and emotions of the Other and to respond well, then the applications of empathy to civil discourse are hopefully apparent. On a personal level, some have written that degree of empathy corresponds to moral action. Goleman writes on the research of Martin Hoffman, “who argues that the roots of morality are to be found in empathy, since it is empathizing with the potential victims—someone in pain, dangers, or deprivation, say—and so sharing their distress that moves people to act to help them. Beyond this immediate link between empathy and altruism in personal encounter, Hoffman proposes that the same capacity for empathy . . . for putting oneself in another’s place, leads people to follow certain moral principles.”

Hoffman’s research demonstrated a correlation between a person’s capacity for empathy and her support for moral principles like aid for the poor. Studies have not concluded that empathy always motivates people to act morally, but they do highlight empathy’s importance in living in a civil society. Acting morally, yet empathetically, better helps us to extend that hospitality in our thoughts, speaking, and listening. As former president Barack Obama once said, “I view that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people’s hopes and struggles, as an essential ingredient for arriving at just decision and outcomes.”

On a more societal level, Jeremy Rifkin writes on the “empathic civilization.” (And you can watch a really cool video explaining his thoughts here.) In his work, he speaks on the primary human drive to belong, which he calls an “empathic drive.” He says that empathy is grounded in our shared morality and our flaws. For Rifkin, “When we talk about building an empathic civilization, we’re not just talking about utopia. We’re talking about the ability of human beings to show solidarity not only with each other, but with our fellow creatures who have a one and only life on this little planet.” And when we are able to show that solidary, Rifkin argues, then we are able to truly have civilization.

To illustrate his point, he uses perspectives on human evolution: we first saw ourselves as part of one tribe, then as part of one religion, then as part of one nation state. Humans typically show empathy in order to relate to each other on these levels, showing solidarity as they associate with one another in terms of blood ties, religious affiliation, and national identity. So, Rifkin asks, why can’t we extend our empathy beyond this? Why can’t we see ourselves as part of one race sharing one biosphere? Surely if such empathy extended this far, we would stop seeing ourselves in terms of our differences. If we began discussions with the acknowledgement of our common humanity, then civil discourse could flourish. Disagreements would undoubtedly arise, as surely as they do between family members, but such strong empathy would still allow us to work together civilly for the common good.

Of course, despite some of our perhaps natural tendencies, empathy doesn’t always come easily. In fact, sometimes it is downright discouraged by the culture we find ourselves in. We are tempted to continue to define ourselves by our merely religious, ethnic, or national ties. During World War II, for example, both Japanese and American cultures encouraged the dehumanization of their respective enemies, largely to make it less difficult to kill one another during wartime. Donald Shriver writes, “In its systematic erosion of tendencies to empathize, racism is a peculiarly vicious enemy of forgiveness in politics or justice in any human relation.” Through this negative example, Shriver directly links empathy with forgiveness and justice. Racism, which refuses to extend empathy past a limited idea of “our own kind,” undermines the ability to practice forgiveness and justice well. And interestingly, the U.S. has never apologized for dropping atomic bombs on Japan, and Japan has never apologized for bombing Pearl Harbor.

Now that we have a working, nuanced definition of empathy—that is, an ongoing process by which we identify and respond actively to another’s thoughts and feelings, a practice fundamentally associated with hospitality, forgiveness, justice, and civil discourse—well, what’s a lowly undergraduate English major to do? How can my discipline help cultivate empathy, as well as civil discourse?

Critics, academics, and writers have often associated reading, especially that of fiction, with empathic readers. Margaret Nussbaum, in a defense of the liberal arts education, writes on a particular type of empathy that she calls “narrative imagination,” or “the ability to think what it might be like to be in the shoes of someone different from oneself.” Reading narratives causes us to see from someone else’s point of view, even feeling what they feel. If we read well, we empathize with the protagonist and other characters. As in Jeremy Rifkin’s idea of extending our empathy to the world, some attribute “to storytelling the extension of the ‘moral circle’ to include ‘other clans, other tribes, and other races.’ . . . [B]y allowing our projection ‘into the lives of people of different times and places and races, in a way that wouldn’t spontaneously occur,’ fiction can change our perspectives,” writes Suzanne Keen.

While there are no significant studies to show that reading does actually increase empathy, the possibility exists for us to cultivate an at least “weak” empathy. Even if this practice does not result in action, by reading, we have at least begun the ongoing process of empathy.

Aside from the potential to cultivate empathy, English as a discipline requires writing. A lot of writing. Looking back at my own trajectory in my time as an undergrad, I know that writing has helped me to create orderly thoughts, connections, and arguments. Not only do I see it in myself, but I am also able to better analyze the arguments and connections of others. Admittedly, I don’t always do that well—hopefully this presentation doesn’t represent that fact—but the rhetorical skills that an English major has fostered an extra concern for words and the arguments that they can represent.

Empathy, the English major, and civil discourse all seem to work well on paper. Empathy oozes from the cracks of what it means to study the language and literature of the Other. And empathy binds itself up with the other virtues in forming a foundation for civil discourse. But instead of simply focusing on the higher philosophies and musings, Finding Civil Discourse has taught me the value of particulars and exemplars. So for this project, I sat down with Dr. Alan Noble, professor of English, longtime editor-in-chief of the magazine Christ and Pop Culture, and recent founding member of Public Faith with Michael Wear. He describes the latter as an organization that’s attempting to reenvision evangelical participation in politics. Instead of the angry, “culture war” rhetoric often employed by the right, Public Faith seeks to promote pluralism and bipartisanism while remaining steadfast on key issues. Dr. Noble wishes to offer an evangelical perspective on political issues, but winsomely. The website publishes key stances in language that invites agreement, with the goal to remain neighborly toward people who do not always agree. We can think more creatively about living together with the Other by engaging in empathic language rather than the sensationalized, enflamed accounts we often stumble across in the media.

Public Faith has released statements on topics like criminal justice, perspectives helped by empathy. However, Dr. Noble says that the real work of empathy is two-fold: we must advocate for the oppressed without abstracting them, and we must seek to understand those with whom we argue. Advocating while abstracting can hurt communities when we do not stop to consider how they might be hurt by certain policies. A civil society pursues the common good, which can only be achieved when we consider the Other. For those who do not see things in the same way, we must empathize in order to communicate well. Dr. Noble has stressed that we don’t necessarily need to win people over to our side through arguments, but we ought to help them understand that it is possible to live as neighbors, and work together in pursuit of the common good. By maintaining a stalwart online presence, Public Faith serves as a practical example of civil discourse and empathy.

Empathy is an ongoing process by which we identify and respond actively to another’s thoughts and feelings. It is a practice fundamentally associated with hospitality, forgiveness, justice, and civil discourse. And I say, “practice,” because in order to contribute fully to civil discourse, it must continually be put into action, extending to the whole human race. Studying English may be the starting point for cultivating empathy, but organizations like Public Faith show empathy in practice among a culture of uncivil language and thoughts.

When I look back to that fateful viewing of Godzilla 2000 as a kid, I see a terrifying monster, formidable foes, and unthinkable destruction. But I also see the potential for humanity to recognize each other as humans, to work together despite religious or ethnic ties, to put differences aside for a greater good. While I don’t think that a monster will rise up out of the sea, I do think that the monsters of the present day can unite, not divide, us, if we are properly empathetic.

Telling Better Stories

I recently spent a semester studying at the University of Oxford through the SCIO program, where I delivered a TED-esque talk very similar to this. Although previously published via the illustrious medium of Facebook, it seemed worth another share here. Thanks to Will and Ryan for allowing me to (hopefully more than occasionally) hijack the blog. 
I don’t know if you’ve seen it yet, but King Lear at Blackwell’s was an amazing experience. I know a lot of us went last Tuesday. Personally, I couldn’t recommend it more. It was well worth the £17. Not only was it interesting because it’s Shakespeare (duh), but also because there were only five actors. I don’t know how familiar you might be with King Lear, but there are far more than five characters.

Needless to say, there was a lot of actor-sharing. A single actor would use props like scarves, glasses, or jackets to let the audience know which character he was at the time. So for example, two of King Lear’s daughters are played by a single actress, but we can tell the difference by the different scarves she wears. These two characters would often appear in the same scene, so the actress would wear one scarf and hold up the other as if the scarf were the character. She and the others on stage would look at it, talk to it, touch it. We as the audience come to understand that the object is a person—at least for these few hours on this stage in the middle of a bookstore.

But then I got to thinking: how often do we take this experience out of the bookstore? We understand objects as people, people as objects. Look at me. You probably see dark hair, glasses, and a flower skirt. You’ve already come to understand me as a thing, an object. And I’m not blaming anyone—we all do it. You make assumptions about me based on the way I look, the way I talk, the way I present myself. You see my body and determine I’m a woman. You see my glasses and think I’m smart/hipster/edgy/cool/trying too hard. You see my hair and decide I probably should have just put it up today. And let’s not even talk about all the ways you’ve probably already guessed that I’m not a very practiced public speaker.

You’ve done all of this within seconds. I’m a thing to you.

Maybe, if we’ve ever had a conversation, it’s different for you. Maybe you know I’m from Hawaii, or that C.S. Lewis in Context is my primary tutorial, or that sleeping is my favorite pastime. Maybe you’ve seen me eating too many cakes at teatime. You know facts, statistics, snapshots, if you care to look or remember. But these are all still things.

You might never know my story. You’ll never know that my older brother has special needs. And you’ll never know what I went through growing up as I came to realize what this meant. You’ll never know about the cancer my mom had my sophomore year of high school and the depression that came with it. You won’t know the addictions, the late nights, the angsty journal entries that pervade almost every memory of my growing-up years.

We’ll never talk about the ways I’ve overcome these, that I still fight to overcome these. You won’t feel the hugs from my mom, meet the friends who encouraged me, or hear the words they said. You won’t read the same books in the same way I did. You won’t discover the same epiphanies, or participate in the processes that brought me here.

Because to you, I am an object, a thing easily definable and dismissed, a scarf on a stage in a bookshop.

And to me, you are that.

I don’t know your story—maybe I never will. I may never even know what your primary tutorial is or what state you call home.

And as much as I want to know your story, sometimes I have to remind myself that I can’t. Intimately knowing every person here during a single semester is just not possible, as much as we might converse or interact. And as important as our stories are in the past, what about us in the present? The way we process information, the connections we make, the inevitable influence of our memories?

I guess, maybe, we can’t really know each other. Maybe.

But that doesn’t mean we have to be objects to each other. You are no simple scarf in a play that signifies a name, a voice, a shadow of a personality. You are so much more—and so am I, and so are all of us. That’s just true.

It’s going to take a lot of conversation, and a lot of constant imagination to realize that truth; open, empty rooms in our minds where we allow other people to exist in possibility. Maybe I am more than these glasses or this hair or even this talk. Maybe you are more than a haircut or a smile as we pass by. Maybe you’re on your way to a lecture where you’ll sit with a new British friend, awkwardly attempting to talk about the weather before you break out your phone to text your mom—man, you miss her a lot—and tell her about what you cooked for your food group last night. Maybe your life is just as complex as mine.

None of these things probably happened—and that’s okay, because I humbly realize that I’m no psychic. I don’t actually know. But maybe these stories are an exercise for me in imagination, helping me to see you as more than an object. Maybe stories—even just the ones I make up—will make you and I more human.

In the final scene of King Lear, one character cries over the “body” of another. It moved me to tears. But the “body” was a just a dress that the dead character had worn, draped over the stage. And this was the moment of greatest humanity: that in the telling of the story, the object had become a person.

Let’s tell better stories about each other.