My father told me that 16 people were living in the house right next to ours. In one house. He was talking about the Syrian family that moved a couple of month ago, probably to escape the civil that tore their country apart for more than two years now. Before I knew they were living in those conditions, I was more concerned about the noise their children were making in the streets, the feeling of privacy I couldn’t have in my own house anymore because of them. This was the first thing that came out of the mind of a girl living in “fist world” conditions in a “third world” country. I didn’t empathize with them. I was only concerned about the effect of their presence on me.
The other day, the fact that they were living in poverty added up in my mind to the fact that they were illegal refugees staying in a foreign country. Thus, my father and I decided to order the same meal we were having for dinner to this house of 16 people. When I talked
about this to a friend, he described it as “awesome”. It wasn’t really awesome to me: it would not be normal to not help people living in those conditions and living that close to you, when you drive a BMW to work everyday.
This act also made me ask myself why we were doing this. It reminded me of my grade 12 philosophy class, where one of my classmates kept arguing that everything humans do was necessarily self-interested.
Here, he would have said that we helped those people to feel good about ourselves: viewing ourselves as good usually makes us feel good and we view ourselves as good when we act good. To not feel bad about ourselves: feeling guilty because we didn’t act when we could have would have made us feel worse. To gain recognition from others witnessing the action.
Since we will never be able to find the real purpose of an action, we can always find some effects an action has on the one who acts as good for him/her, and thus, as-self interested. The solider who sacrificed himself may have done it so that his name is remembered and his family honoured.
To go back to the story about the Syrian family, I understood that night that empathy was the thing making us do all this. I was able to imagine and maybe even feel this family’s “loneliness” going aways when they would see that foreigners were ready to help them, feel their “happiness” when they would eat some good food all together.
Empathizing requires us to get out of our minds to go inside of someone else’s and view things as she or he does. This is everything but self-interested as we have to first get rid our “self” and go beyond the boundaries of our own perceptions, own sensations, own feelings, own thoughts.
For once, I was able to prove that guy that he was wrong, that we could be more than self-interested creatures when we wanted to.
That night, I understood that empathy was making us humans.