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Empathy—Is It A Product of Our Upbringing?

The Humanist Lesson

First We Didn’t Exist

Then came the first humans, barely scratching out a living in the world and surviving any way they could. Slowly they began to create and master tools and started to get the upper hand over other species. They learned to grow crops so small bands of basic family units became communities of various groups who intermarried and grew in number. Some became dominant while others simply followed to gain protection and sustenance.

Then came the first civilizations and the first great cultures. There were tribes tied to their territories, then kingdoms loyal to one ruler or family. Complex systems of trade and law were shaped and reshaped, over and over, as fighting broke out and subsided and groups moved on and changed. The erratic pattern continued until the nation-state rose.

It Was Unprecedented

Family or tribal ties were no longer the prime motivator for being loyal to one group or identifying with it. You didn’t just live on a piece of land anymore, you had a country, a designated area inside newly created borders. Now, thousands of people spoke the same language and shared much of the same history and culture. The countries we know and identify with today were created out of smaller territories which already had strong identities. Romans and Milanese and Venetians became Italians, just as Burgundians, Bretons and Normans became French. Anyone who wanted to take part in a huge political and social experiment on a formerly mysterious continent became Americans.

Today, most people are sure of where they belong based. We learned to adapt to the new reality. We have settled into a comfortable way of defining ourselves which everyone easily understands.

But It Won’t Last…

The wheel of change never stops or slows down just because some people are uncomfortable with what it causes. Colonization ultimately brought about multiculturalism, from the mass migration of people who had been made second-class citizens in their own lands, to countries their oppressors had come from. Men and women who were previously subjugated by stronger powers traveled to live in places where they knew a fairer and freer system operated. They insisted on their right to be free and respected like everyone else.

They have come by the millions over the last three centuries, looking for a better life that only the colonial ‘superiors’ had previously enjoyed, causing a mixing of highly diverse populations.

Simple definitions of who and what we are is not so easy for everyone anymore. There are people who can’t define exactly who they are along the old parameters. They defy what was once thought to be logical and normal. They are different in a way no people has ever been before.

I Know, Because I Am One of Them

I am unlike most people who answer the question “where are you from?” with just a few words or just one word. I can’t. Most people can tell you their race and nationality in one second. I need at least one minute and I’m not sure that will be provide an answer others can accept. Most people feel confident that their answers fully describe them and that they don’t need to add any further explanations. I have no idea what that feels like. I love it.

Third Culture Adult

I am what is called a Third Culture Adult. The reason I am called that is because I was a Third Culture Kid from the moment I was born. Third Culture Kids was first used by Dr. Ruth Van Reken. It is the title of a book she wrote about her experience growing up in Africa as the child of American missionaries. I first came across a copy of it at the American Library of Paris in 2007.

Because I have Italian citizenship, was married to a Frenchman and was pregnant with not one but two “French” babies, I was compensated by the French government to stay home during my pregnancy in order to minimize any stress.

I was thrilled because it was the chance to read to my heart’s content. I visited the American Library almost daily for eight months. One rainy day I was just browsing through the aisles and I wound up in the sociology section. I found that book. I pulled it out, looked at the cover and flipped it open to the first chapter…

I Read It In an Hour.

I left the library feeling elated. I thought “Finally! Someone who understands what I have been feeling and saying for years. I’m not a freak!” It was a revelation, an epiphany and one hell of a relief. Here was someone who talked about the positive and negative aspects of growing up in various countries and having friends from places so different from what I had known they seemed to be part of another world at first. It is a way of living which forces you open your mind and challenges your expectations and accepted views.

When you’re young you just take it in, but as you get older it creates an undying curiosity. You aren’t satisfied with simple answers or explanations; you don’t believe them. Your way of thinking has trained you to understand that people, places and ideas have to be understood on a deeper level. You seek out more information, you ask questions, you try to find out details, always more details, because the different, the diverse and the undetermined are fascinating. You are attracted by the “other”, you’re not scared of them. You want to have lots of experiences. Your comfort zone is no zone, no limits, no barriers, always forward, always discovering and not judging.

No Better Way to Learn Empathy

One thing I now know is there is no better way to learn empathy than to grow up third culture. You learn from doing, seeing and being. It is the only emotion which truly helps to break down the barriers which cause division, prejudice and hostility. It is the most humanistic way of learning because you have to see others are people first and foremost.

After six years in Paris, one Provence wedding and one set of twins, my husband and I decided to come to the United States. For me it was a homecoming, for him it was a first move to a different country. He had grown up watching American TV shows and movies but nothing prepared him for the culture shock he faced. Here, he was the “different” one, the weird one, the on that made people re-think their idea of how a Frenchman looks, speaks and acts. He adjusted and people adapted to him. Now has his own business and his speech is peppered with Americanisms he didn’t even understand when we first arrived.

The irony is that in some ways I have had to adjust even more than he did. I sound American. I have known the city we live in since I was four years old and even went to college here, but I notice that people look at me in confusion, while they look at him in awe. He’s French. I’m an unfathomable mess.

My Answer to “Where Are You From?” is Now “What Do You Want to Know?”

I was born in Rio de Janeiro so I’m Brazilian. I am Italian because my parents were both born and raised in Bologna, but I have never actually lived in Italy. My French is as fluent as my English because I grew up in Switzerland and Belgium—I also speak Italian and Spanish. Portuguese was my first language.

I feel equally at home in Geneva, Brussels, London, Paris, Bologna, Venice and New York. It always feels like I never left and I miss all of them all the time. I don’t have one favorite food. Instead I crave hummus, pasta or sushi with the same intensity. My favorite authors are those who write about their own culture so well I feel I am living it, or those who describe being the immigrant or the third culture person with insight and compassion. Jhumpa Lahiri was a great discovery for me. I love several great artists and musicians but have a predilection for Islamic mosaics and Italian opera. Diversity is what I love and what I am used to. I would move to another country in a heartbeat if I had the chance.

Stuck Between Worlds?

Now more than ever, I feel that being “stuck between worlds” as it were and having been raised to see other points of view no matter what the subject, is a huge advantage. As a child it was the only way to make friends. At my school in Geneva we had over 50 nationalities. No-one was exactly like anyone else so you had to look beyond the surface details or easy definitions and find other things in common. If you didn’t, you ended up alone.

Thanks to my friends I knew how to curse in every language from French and German to Arabic and Tagalog. We grew up going to dances together and hanging out at McDonald’s on Thursday afternoons after our one half-day of school. Now they live in places as different and far away as Beirut and Sydney and Tokyo and Copenhagen. Most of them are like me, with two passports and a long list of places they have called home over the years. We all have people we care about in many places and almost every event in the international news touches us on a personal level. We don’t think in categories and we don’t judge based on what could be a one-word answer to a superficial question people usually ask just to pigeon hole you according to their way of thinking.

I Am More Than…

I am not just an Italian, or an American, or a convert from Catholicism to Buddhism, or a mother and wife, or even a third culture person. In order to know me it takes a lot of conversations and time to understand. I’m still working on understanding it myself.

To me the most important thing to know is that I am person, a human being. Title, nationality or religion don’t tell me everything I need to know about any one person. People are a complex mix of their genetic makeup, where they grow up and their personal experiences. No-one is easy to define.

I Say Embrace the New Identity

The political discourse in the US election and what was being said by people who voted in favor of Brexit, is, to my mind, out-of-date. I moved around a lot as a child, but you don’t have to go very far in most major cities to find a lot of cultural diversity. You will find a mix of cultures in every country which only one century ago would have seemed impossible. Some people fear they will lose their identity because of this. I say, embrace the new identity which will come from it.

Definitions of countries have changed. You can be British and wear a sari. You can be American and wear a hijab. What counts is that you share the same belief in certain principles. It is about what is inside, not what is outside.

Values which call on everyone to look beyond regular categories of definition will be the new threads to bind people together. They demand that we remember that the definition of a person is a fluid and constant journey we all take. We all want to be appreciated for what is deep inside us, those deeply held beliefs and hopes which define who we are. It can’t be explained in a simple sentence, but demonstrate them every day through actions. We are all human.

The idea that anyone can be anything they want is widely embraced and accepted in the world today. People flock to countries who endorse and live by those principles, to have the chance to live by them and contribute.

Freedom Brings Out The Best

The ideal we are all trying to accomplish is trusting that the barriers which existed in other societies throughout history would play no part in our modern world. These are barriers that stymied entire populations by hemming them into artificial categories and kept them stuck in a position they could have risen above, given the chance.

This humanistic form of government was conceived in such a way that it reminds each person that they must think beyond their own immediate, selfish needs; To remember that our countries need the best from each and every one of us. There is not a single category of person who can contribute and help better our communities. We all have the potential to be great, to change lives and to show the world that what counts is someone’s humanity above everything else.

Empathy is Key to Building Our Communities

Being able to see reality from someone else’s point of view has to be the basis for all our decisions. People need to think about what they truly want for their country. Whether it’s one which accepts people based on their skin color, religion or cultural background, but on the fact that they want to build a stable present to make a better future for everyone. Can we look beyond our petty differences and welcome everyone who wants to contribute to our communities without asking “what’s in it for me”?

I truly fear that if we cannot achieve this empathetic state of mind, we will revert back to the xenophobic, hateful and distorted mentalities which created divided societies which crushed dreams and killed spirits. A country where might makes right and entire populations are singled out to be treated like second class citizens because those with power decide they are too “different” will not survive long. Theories and agendas which caused so much pain and suffering in the past have no place in the present.

We must trust that the humanistic framework of modern representative democracies will continue to hold up. We all have to stand up and defend it, not allow it to be torn down by those who can’t find the moral strength and the visceral courage to accept that definitions which applied in the past will only strangle the future. We have to say, loud and clear, that we will stand up for every person and proudly proclaim that we remain on the side of personal freedom, not judgment; that we want everyone to have a fair chance to fulfill their potential, because past mistakes can be discarded once and for all. Assumptions can be turned around for the better and when the best of the human spirit is encouraged, it will win out.

We will accept nothing less for ourselves and for our children.

 

Feature image courtesy of Flickr, markgranitz.

Source: Fractus Learning

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