I sat in a dark theatre last night and watched Signature Theatre's new production of Arthur Miller's Incident at Vichy. When the lights came up and the actors took their bow, one stepped forward and said only the following: We dedicate this to the people of Paris. I sat next to my girlfriend who is a new mother, who says since having a baby, everything hits her differently, and I felt the first sting of tears.
It is a lovely play, haunting and timely and important. I sat in that theatre last night and thought about the events of Friday. I thought about young men and women wooed by a story of other-ness, one rooted not in religion or faith, but in the seductive nature of hate. I thought about how evil grows like a weed and wondered what in us makes some more susceptible than others. And then I thought about how there are still people in the world sitting in a cool theatre listening to a story about human decency and goodness in the face of the most horrific acts. And how that's not nothing. I thought about how theatre and stories are their own acts of rebellion---different seeds, better seeds. I thought about how changing the world must be built on small acts of kindness, an activation of our empathy at every turn.
On Friday, as terror unfolded in France, I sat safely in my office in New York underlining the following passage from a book, having no idea what was taking place across the ocean. It was important before what occurred, and may seem not terribly timely as extreme events tend to activate our empathy in really profound ways, but when the dust settles, as it will, it will still be our job to offer kindness, to tell stories, and engage our better angels, to shuffle the world forward by planting small seeds of goodness wherever, and however, we can.
"Empathy isn't just something that happens to us--a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain--it's also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves. It's made of exertion, that dowdier cousin of impulse. Sometimes we care for another because we know we should, or because it's asked for, but this doesn't make our caring hollow. The act of choosing simply means we've committed ourselves to a set of behaviors greater than the sum of our individual inclinations: I will listen to his sadness, even when I'm deep in my own. To say going through the motions--this isn't reduction so much as acknowledgment of effort--the labor, the motions, the dance--of getting inside another person's state of heart or mind.
This confession of effort chafes against the notion that empathy should always rise unbidden , that genuine means the same thing as unwilled, that intentionality is the enemy of love. But I believe in intention and I believe in work." Leslie Jamison | The Empathy Exams