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Searching for empathy in the humanities

what's in a narrative

When I was in eighth grade, I had an English teacher named Mrs. Johnson. During the last period of the school day, I would sit in the back corner of her classroom and listen while she led recitations of “Julius Caesar” or discussions of film scenes from “Amadeus.” Everyone in the class loved her. I trusted her not just as a teacher but also as my mentor during times of insecurity. In my mind, her words still speak to me with the same colorful, yet sensitive candor that seemed to listen even to what I didn’t know how to express.

As a class, we read the journals of Sir Frederick Treves, a 19th century British surgeon known for his dexterity with the pen as well as with the scalpel. In his memoirs, Treves writes about his relationship with Joseph Merrick, whose severe bone deformities led British society to dub him “The Elephant Man.” Paraded throughout London as a grotesque spectacle, Merrick was subjected to all types of dehumanization, with civilian onlookers screaming in horror at his appearance and physicians reducing him only to his anatomical anomalies.

But Treves took a different approach. While perusing his journals, Mrs. Johnson challenged us to look for glimmers of Merrick’s “romantic imagination” in the text, to search for the personhood buried beneath the degrading narratives. We read about how Merrick cherished a photograph of his mother, the same woman who abandoned him in a workhouse. We read about how he would construct card-paper models of buildings in the city and stroll through the hospital courtyard in gentlemen’s clothing to imagine the urban cosmopolitan life. “The Elephant Man” became just Joseph Merrick to us — an ordinary person with an extraordinary appreciation for the arts and a talent for conversing with all sorts of people.

Even eight years later, as a senior studying English, history and anthropology, I’m still Mrs. Johnson’s student. Her pursuit of the noble human qualities in all people taught me how to write with sensitivity, nurturing in me the voice with which I have written ever since. Thanks to her, just as Dr. Treves’s words allowed British society to see Joseph Merrick in a humanized light, writing has become my own way to contemplate and articulate the deep human connection I share with others.

For me, there’s something special about what the humanities can teach us about humility. Whenever we discuss the moral implications of a Marlowe drama or how the ancient Greeks might have thought about kinship, we embark on an impossible task: to offer an answer where there can be no true answer, to carefully craft an argument while knowing that it could easily be dismantled. Studies in the humanities defy simple absolutes and encourage people to think in terms of nuance and complexity. They tear down our egoistic preconceptions about the world and challenge us to think with rigorous self-correction. It can be a humbling experience to own up to our own biases especially after realizing we can never truly do away with them. The issues we address are infinitely vast, and in the end, we make up only a small portion of their intellectual universe.

But more than anything, I believe that the humanities, when used in the right way, can inspire us to cultivate empathy for others. I’ll use the study of history as an example. Many people might see history as just the study of trivial facts, but for me, it has been just the opposite. History focuses not on “facts” but on narratives—it’s concerned not so much with what happened, but how people at the time were interpreting what happened.

For instance, learning when the medieval Crusades occurred might be important, but what’s more interesting is how its participants were imagining their roles as players within a larger narrative. Some Christians saw themselves as soldiers of God’s army, destined to recapture the Holy Land from unbelievers and thereby bring about the Apocalypse as foretold in the Bible. While the results were inhumanely violent, many genuinely thought they were fulfilling a divine prophecy for the benefit of the world. When we adopt the perspectives of the people we are studying instead of imposing our modern beliefs onto the past, events like this start to make more sense. We begin to see to them as human beings with real, flawed ideologies like our own, not merely as heartless monsters of a different species.

Placing ourselves into the shoes of another person requires us to distance ourselves from our own principles to assume the mindset of a fellow human being. We must decrease so that others may increase. If we want to develop empathy in our relationships, we could benefit from immersing ourselves actively not just into the language of others but also into the convictions and feelings hidden beneath their words.

Stories allow us to do just this—to recognize the stark humanity even amid the most disheartening of circumstances. To some, Joseph Merrick’s eventual death was tragic. When lying down to sleep, he snapped his neck from the weight of his heavy, deformed skull. But for those who understood him well, there was more to the story. Knowing that Merrick always sat up when sleeping, Treves believed that his friend lied down on purpose—as a deliberate, heroic attempt to declare his freedom from the sickness that had always shackled him. The facts tell us that Merrick’s disease defeated him; however, depending on the narrative, one could say instead that Merrick found a way to triumph over adversity even through death.

Ultimately, there is no certainty to how our stories can be written, but that’s what makes them so compelling. To this day, I’m indebted to Mrs. Johnson for teaching me to value the complexity of the human experience. Hopefully, by learning to empathize with others, we can take one step closer to learning eventually how to come to terms with our own lives.

Chris Lee is a Trinity senior. His column runs on alternate Thursdays.

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