My Christmas art for the day is one of my favorite Madonnas. It was painted in color by Roberto Ferruzzi, but I actually prefer the black and white copy I found several years ago in a book of Christian art. You may draw your own connections between the painting and the post that follows. Let’s just say I wanted to start with an image of a loving mother.
*Disclaimer* I reserve the right to be completely not-funny today. Even though I typically try to find humor in all things, occasionally I’m thinking about stuff that is just too serious to mock. So if you’re not in the mood to tolerate a bit of bleakness, please check back tomorrow when we will return to our regularly scheduled shallowness and attempts to amuse.
There’s an image from the news that has been haunting me this week. It is of a 10 year old girl named Shelby, beaten by her father and step-mother and locked into a linen closet. She is wedged between the shelves and the door, crying for help, covered in her own vomit. It is her darkest moment, but the evidence points to a long pattern of abuse – ten short years of pain and humiliation and the kind of confusion that must fill a child’s mind whose own parents seem to despise her. Shelby’s release from this torture came not from the opening of the closet door, but from her own death. In a strangely merciful way, she was freed from a life of pain by a different kind of escape.
I’ve been thinking about, or actually agonizing about Shelby and trying not to imagine her life, but imagining it anyway. It bothers me that we only know about Shelby because she died. I have to ask the obvious question: how many others are there, just like her, who live in “dark closets” of neglect and abuse? I am also deeply troubled by the single question of how Shelby’s parents could have possibly justified their actions. I’ve written about this before – the strange capacity humans have of lying to themselves and how it helps me understand atrocities such as the Amish school shooting. But that case involved victims unknown to the murderer. This case disturbs me even more because the very people who should have nurtured and protected this young life destroyed it.
In a recent article about Shelby’s death, a caseworker suggested that the roots to the abuse likely go back to the childhood of the abusers. "Something happened when [the step-mother] was supposed to be developing empathy as a child. It's like the Columbine High shooters. No feeling for others' suffering and humiliation." I’ve heard that in language acquisition there’s a linguistic “window of opportunity” – a time when we could learn to speak any language with perfect pronunciation, but only if we are exposed to it. When that window closes, if we haven’t learned to make certain sounds, we never will. I wonder if there’s a similar developmental phase for empathy. Perhaps the ability to empathize can be permanently precluded by neglect. And it’s easy to see how the abused, through enough exposure, can learn to speak the language of abuse instead.
Probably not coincidentally, I am also re-reading (for at least the fourth time) my parenting Bible, Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn. Here’s what he says about empathy: “To step outside one’s own viewpoint, to consider how the world looks to another person, is, when you think about it, one of the most remarkable capabilities of the human mind.” Kohn says that a child naturally develops what he calls “perspective taking” when he starts to realize that other people’s lives are distinct from his own. Gabriel is just learning that when Grandma leaves our house, she continues to have things to do, places to go, emotions to feel. Children (and later adults) who can imagine how others experience the world are less likely to harm them. This is perhaps why Kafka once described war as a “monstrous failure of imagination.” To do violence to another person you must be incapable of imagining their perspective. You can only kill them if you see them as less human than yourself.
When I wrote last week about the qualities I admire in my kids, I was also thinking about Shelby and thinking that, ironically, the very traits we admire in children make them easily victimized. They are trusting, loving, dependent, and naïve to the dark truths of our world. I’m not sure if it was obvious, but as I made the list, I also meant to imply a connection between childlike and Christlike. And here’s where empathy fits in. Because there’s actually a difference between the “perspective taking” that Alfie Kohn describes and true empathy. The first means I can appreciate that someone else may be sad even though I am happy. The later means I actually feel that person’s sadness along with them. When I tell a sick friend “I really feel for you, man” I don’t actually mean that literally (unless the virus is very contagious in which case I’ll be feeling it soon enough). I believe true empathy must be pretty rare. And complete empathy has only been felt once – if you believe in a literal atonement – when Christ physically suffered for our sins, our pain, our emotional sorrows. Maybe the sympathy I feel for Shelby is meant to be just a shadow – a human vestige of a truly divine characteristic.