A Poverty of Understanding

Author Corey Booker reflected on a conversation he had with a mentor of his, Frank Hutchins, in his book United. He goes into detail explaining some of the lessons Frank taught him and some of Frank’s views of the world. One big focus was on a lack of empathy, or shared understanding of each other’s circumstances, and how that impacts the way that we treat each other and approach the world. Describing Frank’s views, Booker wrote,

“What made … negative conditions persist, he believed, was an insidious poverty of understanding, a poverty of empathy. People’s inability to see what is going on in the lives of their fellow citizens, to understand what so many American’s endure, creates an atmosphere that allows injustice to fester and proliferate.”

Our American culture encourages us to think about ourselves before others and to focus on what the things and opportunities of our own before we think about how our choices impact the lives of others. We do not spend a lot of time thinking about the experiences of others and we hold up our own success as evidence of our greatness, proof that we are good people, and as an excuse to ignore those who are less fortunate than ourselves. Frank Hutchins would have argued that we need to listen and spend more time with those around us, in our neighborhood, at our children’s schools, and in our community and those communities near us to better understand the experiences and realities of other people. If we focus only on ourselves, the things we have, and the things we want, then we will never be able to develop a sense of empathy focused on other people and their well being. We will turn away from those in society who truly need help as we explore ways to have and achieve more for ourselves.

A major struggle of our politics today is determining how large a role personal responsibility should play in our success and how much assistance and aid we should receive from other people. When we fail to understand the experiences of others and generalize our experience to the rest of the world we can never reach an honest starting point to sort out the details of the personal responsibility discussion. Our success and our material desires drive us to seek more and seek what other people have, and it becomes tempting to believe that we achieved based on our own merit, and that those who do not enjoy our same comforts somehow lack personal responsibility or an industrious mind. This is the heart of the lack of understanding and empathy that Hutchins described.

Stepping beyond ourselves, our experiences, and our narrow perspectives requires truly interacting with other people and other communities that we often would not see. By putting our material desires and drive for success aside, we can look at other people and actually see them, and begin to think about the advantages we experience, the smart decisions we were able to make as a result, and how other people perhaps never had those advantages. Individually we won’t solve the question of how much personal responsibility plays into each person’s situation, but we will be better able to empathize and understand the realities of the lives of our fellow American’s.

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