Writing and Empathy

A poem by Dante Di Stefano, “A Drone Pilot Discusses the Story of Abraham and Isaac” (http://www.amethystarsenic.com/issues/4-1/dante-di-stefano.php) compares Abraham’s faith on that day he offered up his son to the kind of everyday faith with which we live our mundane lives, faith that, for example, if we wait in line at a store, we will be served, if we offer up our credit card, the purchase will be successful. “You don’t question the altar or the knife,” he writes. “You don’t ever doubt that the Walmart/will carry the Tide marker you need…” This is kind of stunning, this deep empathy with Abraham’s point of view, speculative though it may be, ironic, rueful. I thought of this poem when I heard a lecture by Alain de Botton about our culturally-based ideas of success and failure (http://www.ted.com/talks/alain_de_botton_a_kinder_gentler_philosophy_of_success). He claims our contemporary understanding of them can lead us to discount the role luck plays in success and in failure. Our tendency is to think success was earned, and failure too. He suggests that the classic literary form of tragedy used to allow us to view failure with a more nuanced understanding of character and circumstance. He cites, e.g., Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In the play we are allowed insight into the troubled character and the events of his life such that we cannot entirely judge him but rather connect to his complex humanity. What strikes me is that we’re talking here about fierce empathy. Fierce empathy is something I should aspire to in my writing, and in my life.

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