It’s easy to empathize with those who are similar to us. In fact, it’s easy to just exist in a world that is familiar. Whether that be in terms of religion, political institutions, language, clothing, plumbing, food, etc., it’s been hard to leave the things I have for so long taken for granted. I went to a grocery store today and have never been so comforted by the sight of a Snickers bar.
There is good reason to fear that which we do not understand. Last month, I saw a book entitled Against Empathy and it sparked my interest. Why would anyone be against empathy? The author, in one video lecture, begins his discussion of empathy with a simple anthropology lesson. Humans are naturally inclined to fear that which is different because we are, at least historically, tribal beings. And in tribal times, it made sense for individuals to fear those who were different because they may come from a different tribe and may subsequently threaten one’s own safety. But that mentality of fearing difference remains.
Today we talked about fear of the unknown in our class discussion. It’s something I have begun to think a lot about in the past two weeks, both in a cultural context and more personally. We talked about how information can dispel fear, how simply going outside one’s comfort zone in an effort to understand can liberate oneself from fear. Today we talked about Islam in the Moroccan context. Morocco is a Muslim country, but not often associated with Islamism or extremism. As I read more about the different schools of Islam and the intersection of Islam and Moroccan politics, I began to think about how helpful and positive it would be if more people had the motivation to further understand the content and history of Islam. Just in my rudimentary reading I felt motivated to learn more about the different schools of thought and modes of interpretation, as most schools and individuals reject the association of Islam with violence. But more than that, I began to realize how incredibly rich and diverse Islam is though it has become, at least in the U.S., incredibly political and stigmatized.
And personally, I have begun to think about the connection between fear and information. While I do think that in certain cases more information can reduce fear and encourage empathy of those who are different, I don’t know if more information is always the answer. At least for me, I tend to justify feelings and personal conflicts with the experiences of others or scientific findings. For example, if I’m feeling homesick, it’s usually only valid if it is a shared experience or if a psychological study claims it is so. Recently I have begun to wonder if feelings and ideas can be valid on their own, if they can possess their own intrinsic, objective truth without the aid of external justification.
My friend this summer discussed leaning into discomfort during his TAPs talk. In terms of external experiences, that means, at least for me, going outside my comfort zone. So far that has included trying to communicate with minimal language skills, walking home alone at night, traveling within Morocco, moving in with a Moroccan family, and knowing I will be living somewhat independently, far from friends and family for several months. It has also included learning about ways of life that I don’t necessarily agree with and giving these divergent ideas credit and non-judgment.
In terms of internal experiences, I think the opposite is true. I know I gravitate to external forms of affirmation instead of leaning into the discomfort of negative emotions. Information does dispel fear, but not always for the best. By citing studies and others, I firstly do not allow myself to feel anything that is not positive, which as a human being, is an impossible standard to maintain. And secondly, it discredits my own internal truth, it belittles the idea that my feelings may be valid simply because I feel them.
“My value is courage.” Morocco has made me consider what it means to be courageous and what the value of these challenging, yet rewarding moments is. I’ve only been here two weeks and I’m excited to see what else will make me very uncomfortable, because I know these are the moments I grow the most.