Making Room for Empathy

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It’s only been recently that I’ve begun to see darkness as a spark. That in my most pathetic, self-pitying moments, I can raise my eyes and see wildflowers of hope and sunsets that seem to dance with the promise of something beyond my experience. This last year has become proof to me that songs of loss and change are often times the songs that inspire us the most, and in retrospect, are songs that encouraged internal transformation.

In the context of the Arab Spring and Western prejudice against Muslims, “conflict resolution – internal or across continental lines – can occur when we listen to cries of loss and songs of communal healing” (Performing Democracy in Iraq and South Africa, 211). For Americans, it means paying attention to the pain of 9/11 and the loss of a sense of ultimate safety that we had maintained for fifty years. For Muslims, it means allowing anger towards Western imperialism and ideals that suffocated the Middle East for centuries; it means the cries of people who have been oppressed by their governments and demand change. For both, it means a willingness to listen to each other and make room for empathy, even in the midst of our own pain.

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Through being present with each other and dropping our preconceived notions of one another, we can tell stories and share our common humanity, which is what Performing Democracy is all about. I have memories of being in fourth grade and being encouraged to create art to help me process 9/11, although at that time, I had no understanding of the importance of Manhattan. This last spring I went to New York for the first time, and on that trip, I truly wept for 9/11 in a way that I never could have before. Never before had I paid attention to my pain as an American, and in processing my feelings for 9/11, I could feel my heart opening up to the stories of all those affected by that day, both in the United States and abroad. My own anguish made room for others, both in being part of the greater “communal healing” of Americans, but in the “communal healing” of the world post-9/11.

The Arab Spring isn’t a new concept for me; being a political science major, the Arab Spring has been a topic of debate and analysis in many of my classes. However, paying attention to the people of the Arab Spring and not just the political movement is new to me. Reconciling in the face of turmoil is new for me. Crossing borders and exchanging stories is new for me. Making room to feel the pain of people on the other side of the world is new for me.

However, I deeply believe that this is what we are called to. And maybe it is new, but I know that it is right.

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