I grew up living in an apartment in Harlem. When I moved to L.A. I lived in an apartment there. It wasn’t my desire to have a house though after experiencing rents that went up without explanation, downstairs neighbors that harassed my child when she walked across the floor or a landlord who was reluctant to fix a leaky toilet or replace a blown out light bulb on the stairs, I began to seriously think about buying a house. Home ownership in my chosen area was beyond my meager salary; however, after much searching, I finally found a house I could afford though it was many miles away from my job.
That was years ago before the catastrophe in the housing industry. But when I hear people say, “Not all people should have a house. They should be content to live in an apartment,” I wince. Not because what they are saying is true in some instances, but because it implies only certain people should have a house. I wonder if those who say this ever lived in an apartment where rents climbed and things broke and were never repaired, and walls were so thin you could hear your neighbor breathe? It’s fine if you can afford a luxury apartment with plenty of amenities, but not all people can. In addition, some people prefer to pay rent than a mortgage. Nevertheless, I have empathy for the plight of those who want to have a safe, decent place to live and to raise their family; and who have gone out on a limb to secure one; Isn’t that part of the American dream?
However, this blog isn’t about homeownership. It’s about empathy. What is empathy? I’ve been thinking about that word for a while, especially when I hear it used as a negative or weakness. My dictionary defines empathy as an identification and understanding of another’s feelings, situations and motives. That doesn’t sound like a weakness to me. It’s almost like the saying “walk a mile in my shoes,” or “maybe if you walk a mile in my shoes, you will understand what I’m going through.” I don’t have to have the same experience you have to empathize with you. I simply need to be sensitive to your situation. Having empathy doesn’t mean one is weak or naïve. Having empathy enhances a person’s humanity. It allows one to see both sides of an issue; to not jump to conclusions based on ones beliefs or opinion.
What happens when one does not have empathy? Not having empathy or understanding promotes intolerance. It can lead a person to relate to others based on ones prejudices and can lead to devaluing a person’s humanity. Also it can lead to reducing people to labels, not understanding other people who are different from you. It can cause us to see a homeless person as an annoyance rather than a human being keeping us from understanding “there but for the grace of God….” Or when one considers illegal immigration, one sees “aliens” coming in to “take away our jobs,” rather than people seeking a better life for their family. Or the argument that those who have lost their homes should have been content to rent since not all people should have a home.
I’m not condoning a person’s actions whether it is illegal, irresponsible or whatever. Rather, I’m appealing to the humanity in us all. Being empathetic may help us understand that we are not different from our neighbor. When we realize this, maybe we can build a better world.