In Praise of Empathy
by Ruramisai Charumbira
If you had told me that it would take a novel pathogen, to work like a charm, drilling hard into our collective heart, making us shiver with fear and empathy, I would have called you names. If you had told me it would take a novel pathogen, to snap our eyelids wide open to how the third world was and is made; people living in distress for generations, I would have thought you delusional.
I mean, if you had said it would take a novel pathogen, to slap us awake to the fading memory that we, as a species, are a link in the chain of life on earth; not its overlord, entitled to unbridled consumption of oceans, lakes, rivers, forests, animals, fruits, vegetables, and the earth itself, I would have smirked and walked away.
But here I am with veritable cognitive dissonance at the hoarding of basics, while shame eats me alive at the old neglectful care for children and people in places called underdeveloped. Or those children separated from their parents at the border, or somewhere. Or women clutching their bodies and their babies to fend off sexual and other violence. Or that drowned father and child. The thousands of humans floating on mercy in the Mediterranean Sea in search of hope; to say nothing of millions in refugee camps everywhere. If you had told me my stomach would cramp with anger, fear, and empathy, all at the same time, I would have died.
Yet, if I had known my heart would break, at the sight of fellow human beings panicked and shell-shocked by empty shelves, scenes usually reserved for the movies by the merely privileged, I would have scoffed. If you had told me that my eyes would well tears of empathy, at seeing the once invincibly privileged, distressed by the absence of toilet paper where yesterday they had mindlessly sent contributions for those supposedly able to live on a dollar a day somewhere in the third world, I would have laughed out loud.
Yet, here we are, homo sapiens, brought to our collective knees by a mere novel pathogen, doing what we could not think to do yesterday; insisting on the equal treatment of all humans. Or feeling warmth in our hearts for total strangers in distress. Letting empathy and joy rise; even as we grieve the ongoing loss of life; fearing we could be next, felled by the coronavirus.
Corona, Crown. Virus, Infective agent. COVID-19, the Infective Emperor; striking fear as it recruits our bodies and ourselves to do its colonizing and killing. Turning our bodies into viral colonies, for its reproduction and profit in this Anthropocene age. Unmasking the power structures we built for profit and for sympathy, not empathy for one another, and the earth, our home.
Yet here we are, reaching for one another, digitally and six feet apart; with hope and gratitude to those called by choice, duty, and fate, to be on the frontlines of turning fear into hope through data, science, and care. Streaming light into our collective consciousness, so we break out of our denial that we are one another’s kin and that we belong to the earth, not the earth to us.
We rise from where we are in this moment, bringing our hands together in deep gratitude, to all essential service providers anywhere and everywhere on this earth. We are forever in your debt! The scientist and the garbage collector, the nurse and the postal worker, the teacher across the screen, the factory worker, the grocery store clerk and the pet sitter, the truth-telling public official and the janitor, the nun and the pastor, the comedian and the poet, the storyteller and the farmer. Thank you! And to you, for staying home and waking up. Thank you! To parents and caregivers quietly swallowing anxiety so children know tender loving care. Thank you!
The future has arrived on its own terms, without notice. Giving us a chance to pivot and live by the earth’s rhythms. Rhythms we first learned from the planet of our mother’s womb, as we unfurled in her, out toward others; like an acorn unfurling into an oak tree in the earth’s womb. And once born, we looked in and with awe at everyday acts of empathy and generosity given us by the butterflies and bees whose wings and bodies bless our food before it arrives on our plates as dinner. And even now, as we draw fearful breaths, we are grateful for the unearned kindness and sweetness that arrives into our lungs each moment, from the silent, mindful generosity of trees and grass; whose effort on our behalf, should rouse us from our entitlement to feed ourselves, at the expense of all our kin we call animals, plants, insects, fruits…, dirt and dust.
May this earth, our womb in the cosmos, know our gratitude as we hold space for love; and for empathy for one another while the infective emperor terrorizes the queen and the commoner, reminding us that entrenched hierarchy will not save us. We hold hope, even as our voice breaks. We Hail one another’s humanity, Ubuntu in all of us! Hail to the ancestors prompting us to re-member our relationship to ourselves and to one another. Hail to our kinship with them, the earth, the planets, and the sun.
This piece is reprinted with permission by the author (Ruramisai Charumbira©) and THoR.
Ruramisai Charumbira is a historian with specializations in African and Global History. She earned her Ph.D. from Yale University. Her research work is grounded in historical concepts and theories of Memory and Forgetting at individual, social, and collective levels. Her first book, Imagining a Nation: History and Memory in Making Zimbabwe, is a study of the gendered contestations of national identity in a colony/nation built on the exclusion of the “Other.” Her book was a finalist for the 2016 Berkshire Conference of Women Historians’ first book prize for books published in 2015. She currently is an associated Senior Fellow at the Walter Benjamin Kolleg, Bern where she is completing work on her second book exploring themes of individual, social, and collective memory in the British Empire at the turn of the century. She is the founder of THoR.
Charumbira, R. 27 April 2020. “In Praise of Empathy.” AGITATE! Blog: https://agitatejournal.org/in-praise-of-empathy.