I know I'm not alone when I say that one of my great guilty pleasures is late-night (and sometimes early-morning) Zillow scrolling. Early in the pandemic, I was mostly looking at houses in Tulsa, Okla. After all, that is where my husband was born, and the city is famously offering $10,000 to those who show up with a job and are willing to put down some roots. Plus we had heard that my husband's home synagogue was offering a little more money for new congregants who could use some help with moving expenses. Never mind that I am a Catholic and David is a mostly retired Jew. It felt like a chance to start something new and totally different than life in our liberal and largely churchless corner of the Pacific Northwest.
As these things go, though, I got a little bored with my pretend version of Tulsa, and David seemed entirely disinterested in my plan, so I started looking at rural Maine and Fargo, N.D., and sometimes — to my family's great relief — here in Oregon, though most of the fixer-uppers that caught my attention were hugging the border of a contiguous state. The houses that I developed crushes on were not the fanciest ones, but they were houses that felt like the right place to me, though at the time that I started this habit I had never been to Tulsa or Fargo or even Omaha. But photos of the flower gardens and guest bathrooms and laundry rooms of other people in other parts of the country allowed me to project myself into another life, into another consciousness.
My restlessness was partially tamped down when my daughters and I decided to drive from Washington, D.C. to Portland in May. My younger daughter finished her freshman year at George Washington University, so my older daughter and I flew to collect her and drive her home. We took turns at the wheel, awash in an ever-expanding and very eclectic playlist, we lingered a few extra nights in two national parks, we saw spring spread across the country, and everyone re-established their place in the sororal pecking order.
Then, two months later, my husband and I found ourselves needing to drive a U-Haul truck from Tulsa to St. Louis to Portland. It involved his mother's funeral and the tender transport of a family chandelier.
If you are the type to count these things, that's 19 days, 22 states, 6,000 miles, and two rental vehicles. Now, a week off the road after the second trip, I am grumpy and restless, pacing around my upstairs office. I scroll listlessly through Zillow. I check the weather in D.C. and Kansas City, Mo., and Medora, N.D.. I imagine myself back in Tulsa, in the house my husband's grandparents lived in. I see myself cooking all day Friday, lighting candles, and putting cousins' babies down to sleep in our bed while the adults finish a bit of Shabbat cognac before heading home for the night.
I imagine myself opening up a pie shop on the ground floor of a brick warehouse in the Crossroads neighborhood in Kansas City. I'll flip the open sign sometime in the mid-afternoon and close late; we'll serve strong coffee and a couple of seasonal pies alongside apple and cherry. There'll be some savory pies too — with all shortening crust — for the vegans who are still hungry after nibbling a salad while their boyfriends wolfed down a full plate of barbecue.
I'll sit out on the back porch in St. Louis and watch the lightning flash so bright and frequent that it dims the fireflies. I'll weed my flower beds in Northeast Minneapolis, my teacup balanced in the damp dirt as I watch baby rabbits slide beneath a gap at the bottom of the garage door.
I imagine myself a rancher's wife outside of Medora, searching through the pantry for a make-do supper because I don't want to drive the 45 minutes to the grocery store. I imagine myself in churches and dress shops and diners that are far away — physically and culturally—from those in my Southeast Portland neighborhood. I imagine my new friends who will invite me over for coffee and a slice of cake before I head home from my new job to my new house in a new town. And because it is summer and the sun is high, I imagine winter and what it will be like to live in Fargo when it is 40 degrees below zero and the wind is howling across the Great Plains.
My heart is casting about for something, for someone, for somewhere. Some of it, of course, is that I am easily bored. And there is nothing more boring than a relentless global pandemic. But, I am also trying to sort something out. Trying to apprehend something that is niggling at the back of my mind. Trying to understand the people I share the country with.
In his Memorial Day address, President Biden characteristically claimed that "empathy is the fuel of democracy." I sense a bit of eyerolling among my friends at the president's earnest embrace of empathy. Because of Biden's history of personal tragedy, he is often characterized as the "mourner in chief," the person who any American can turn to after a crisis. He is a friend to those who suffer, which is to say, all of us.
He has been cast so thoroughly in the role of griever that when he invokes empathy directly, that is how we hear his exhortation. We hear it as an admonition to show more care toward one another, to act as a salve for one another's suffering. Maybe that is how President Biden meant it, and certainly there is nothing wrong with that — every one of us could use another shoulder to cry on.
But there is another way to think about the president's call to empathy. Maybe he's not really talking about suffering at all. Or maybe he's not talking only about suffering. Maybe he's talking about a kind of empathy that requires the imagination, the kind that requires us to actively seek to understand one another. The kind where we imagine what others are going through — the worries about elderly parents, the trouble with having kids, the trouble with not having kids, the crisis of faith, the comfort of faith, the aloneness, the crowdedness, the neighborliness, the conflicts with neighbors, the balm of a tight community, the liberating anonymity of a huge city, the circumstances and the inner lives of people who are not us or proximate to us.
Perhaps what Biden is exhorting us to — or maybe what I hope he is exhorting us to — is a sense of imagination along the lines of what Wendell Berry describes in his essay "Imagination in Place."
"If ... you want to write a whole story about whole people — living souls, not 'higher animals' — you must reach for a reality which is inaccessible merely to observation or perception but which in addition requires imagination, for imagination knows more than the eye sees."
It seems to me that our imaginative muscles have gotten a little flabby. Though we might mutter some bromides about dialogue across difference, how often do we really imagine ourselves into the lives of those with whom we disagree or even those who are simply not us? To the contrary, in the crucible of a polarized political climate, sometimes it feels immoral or at least counter to our values to imagine ourselves into the lives of those "on the other side," as if our imaginations might lead us astray from our core beliefs and we might become — or at least validate — something or someone we find abhorrent.
But as Berry suggests, the story we tell ourselves about our country and our neighbors is not whole unless we direct our imagination toward those places and people with whom we have no personal contact. If we cannot persuade ourselves to even entertain such an exercise, we doom ourselves to muck about in the mire of generalizations and stereotypes.
This is not simple, of course. It is easier to conjure stereotypes, particularly ones that suit our political aims. It serves us to valorize those we agree with and villainize those we do not. And yet, the empathetic imagination is as essential as the scientific method. Again, Wendell , this time from his essay "God, Science, and Imagination":
"Historians and scientists work toward generalizations from their knowledge, just as all of us do. We must do this, for generalization is a part of our means of making sense. But generalization alone, without the countervailing, particularizing power of imagination, is dehumanizing and destructive."
The particularizing power of imagination. That's what makes our stories whole — or at least more whole — isn't it? I realize now that I have spent the past few months imagining myself into different settings, near and far. And that is a happy distraction. But maybe I am restless and cranky now because there is a kind of unsatisfying escapism and self-centeredness at the core of it. I know that in order to be a full citizen of a pluralistic democracy, it is not about me converting to Judaism and packing my bags for Tulsa. It is not really about me at all.
Instead I need to send the feelers of my imagination further, deeper. Rather than imagine myself as the picturesque North Dakota rancher's wife with a dwindling pantry, I need to extend my imagination toward the whole of that rancher himself. What are his joys? His worries? What does he want from his life? What does he want from me as his neighbor, though a not-very-proximate one? What is it like to live through 140 weeks of drought—the worry about grazing land and fire and whether the whole enterprise might come crashing down? What is it like to wake up in a fitful dark, pull on socks and parka and cap and heavy gloves to head outside, eyes barely open, to break the ice on the water trough for sluggish cattle for the 35th day in a row? What is it like to suspect that everyone you see on television and in movies and on Twitter is mocking you, or worse, has forgotten about you entirely? What is it like to know — deep in your bones — that your children will settle far away, probably in some ironically hipster coastal city?
This is not to suggest that my imagined version of a North Dakota rancher should be imposed on any real rancher or on any flesh and bones person with her own idiosyncrasies and her own inner life. But I am suggesting that the exercise of casting my imagination into the particularities of another American's life is an act of citizenship. It is an antidote to the cycle of characterizing, generalizing, and dismissing that I and many others have gotten so good at. It is an effort to lure myself out of the morass of fragmentation and toward at least some semblance of wholeness.
Perhaps that is what President Biden means when he says that "empathy is the fuel of democracy." For sure, there is a call for us to see and feel the connective tissue of shared grief, but perhaps there is a call to all the rest of it, too —baseball games and dim sum and report cards and evening ESL classes and overdue electricity bills and contaminated water and ice in the pit of the stomach at the sight of a police cruiser. It is the imperative of the whole story. And perhaps we'd get a little better at telling that story if we took the time to imagine one dark February morning on the plains of North Dakota.
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