Tag Archives: empathy

I have no belief in ghosts, spirits or ouija boards and I don’t believe that the past hangs on to the present to make itself palpable. But I have several times experienced a kind of spooky resonance when visiting certain famous battlefields. 

The thought re-emerged recently while watching a French TV detective show that was set in Normandy, and seeing the panoramas of the D-Day landing beaches. I visited those beaches a few years ago and had an overwhelming rush of intense sadness. It was inevitable to imagine the thousands of soldiers rushing up the sands into hellish gunfire, to imagine a thousand ships in the now calm waters I saw on a sunny day, to feel the presence in the concrete bunkers of the German soldiers fated to die there manning their guns. 

The effect is entirely psychological, of course. If some child with no historical knowledge of the events that took place there were to walk the wide beach, he would no doubt think only of the waves and water and, perhaps, the sand castles to be formed from the sand. There is no eerie presence hanging in the salt air. The planet does not record, or for that matter, much note, the miseries humans inflict on each other, and have done for millennia. 

But for those who have a historical sense, the misery reasserts itself. Imagination brings to mind the whole of human agony. 

Perhaps I should not say that the earth does not remember. It can, in certain ways. Visiting the woods of Verdun I saw the uneven forest floor, where the shell craters have only partially been filled in. Once the trees were flattened by artillery, leaving the moonscape littered with corpses. The trees have grown back, but the craters are still discernible in the wavy forest floor. 

This sense came to me first many years ago visiting the Antietam battlefield in Maryland. There is a spot there now called Bloody Lane. Before Sept. 17, 1862, the brief dirt drive was called the Sunken Road, and it was a shortcut between two farm roads near Sharpsburg, Md. All around were cornfields rolling up and down on the hilly Appalachian landscape.

The narrow dirt road, depressed into the ground like a cattle chute, now seems more like a mass grave than a road. And it was just that in 1862, when during the battle of Antietam Creek, Confederate soldiers mowed down the advancing Federals and were in turn mowed down. The slaughter was unimaginable.

You can see it in the photographs made a few days after the battle. The soldiers, mostly Southerners, fill the sunken road like executed Polish Jews. It was so bad, as one Union private said, “You could walk from one end of Bloody Lane to the other on dead soldiers and your feet would never touch the ground.”

Even today, with the way covered with crushed blue stone, the dirt underneath seems maroon. Perhaps it is the iron in the ground that makes it so; perhaps it is the blood, still there after 160 years.

Antietam was the worst single day of the Civil War. Nearly 23,000 men were killed or wounded. They were piled like meat on the ground and left for days before enough graves could be dug for them. There were flies, there was a stench. The whole thing was a fiasco, for both sides, really.

But all these years later, as you stand in Bloody Lane, the grassy margins of the road inclining up around you and the way lined with the criss-cross of split-rail fencing, it is painful to stand in the declivity, looking up at the mound in front of you, covered in cornstalks in a mid-July day. You can see that when the Yankees came over the rise, they were already close enough to touch. There was no neutralizing distance for your rifle fire to travel, no bang-bang-you’re-dead, no time, no room for playing soldier. Your enemy was in your face and you had to tear through that face with lead, the blood splattered was both Federal and Confederate, in one red pond among the furrows. In four hours on 200-yard stretch of Bloody Lane, 5,000 men were blown apart.

It is difficult to stand in Bloody Lane and not feel that all the soldiers are still there, perhaps not as ghosts, but as a presence under your boot-sole, there, soaked into the dirt.

It is almost, as some cultures believe, as if everything that happens in a place is always happening in that place. The battle was not something that occurred before my great-grandfather was born, but a palpable electricity in the air. You can not stand there in Bloody Lane and not be moved by that presence.

A similar wave of dismay overcame me at several Civil War sites: Shiloh; Vicksburg; Fredericksburg; Cold Harbor; Petersburg; Appomattox. Always the images rise in the imagination. Something epochal and terrible happened here. 

Visiting the Little Bighorn Battlefield in Montana, there are gravestones on the slope below the so-called “Last Stand,” but you also look down into the valley where the thousands of Sioux and Cheyenne were camped. 

I’ve visited Sand Creek and Washita. And Wounded Knee. That was the most disturbing. You travel through the Pine Ridge Reservation and the landscape is hauntingly beautiful, then you pull into the massacre site and you see the hill where the four Hotchkiss guns had a clear shot down into the small ravine where the victims huddled. The sense of death and chaos is gripping. The famous image of the frozen, contorted body of Big Foot  glowers in the imagination. It feels like it is happening in a past that is still present. 

This sense of horror and disgust wells up because of the human talent for empathy. Yes, I know full well that there are no specters of the victims waiting there for me, but my immediate sense of brotherhood with them resurrects them in my psyche. I am human, so I know that those dead were just like me. I can imagine myself bowel-loosening scared seeing my comrades to either side being blown to pieces and an enemy who I’ve never met and might have been friends with races toward me with bayonet stretched in front of him, eyes wide with the same fear. 

History is an act of the imagination. The most recent may be memory, but for me to know what my father went through in France and Czechoslovakia in World War II requires my identification with him, my psyche to recognize the bonds I share with him — and with all of humanity. 

So, when visitors are shaken by visits to Auschwitz or stand on the plains of Kursk, or the shores of Gallipoli, they well may sense that history as more present than past. I have had that experience. The ghosts are in me.


Patience is a virtue, they say, although you could never tell it from watching a driver hit the speed dial on his cell phone while in the drive-through lane at McDonald’s.

If it is a virtue, it is one of those quaint, Victorian or medieval virtues, like chastity or temperance, that seem completely beside the point in our modern world.

Ours is a world of channel-surfing, of Federal Express, of 24-hour Wall Street, of the Concorde. drive thru holding bag

When e-mail isn’t fast enough, we invent instant messaging.

Admit it: Haven’t you left something behind at Safeway because you just didn’t want to wait in the line?

Children cannot wait to be teenagers. Teenagers cannot wait to be adults. They are all in over their heads and don’t know it.

Adults cannot wait for the traffic light to change and gun their engines. They run up escalators and microwave their instant coffee.

If they could make their clocks run faster, they would.

And what do they gain by racing through the day?

A few moments to squeeze in something else too hectic to notice as it passes by.

It is our national impatience on each Election Day that we want to know the results before the ballots are actually counted. How has that worked out?

Don’t blame the media: It is our demand for instant results that drives the networks.

But, on the other hand, we should blame media. drive thru sign

I don’t mean “the press,” for which “the media” is often used as a synonym but rather the actual mediums of communication: the television, the computer, the iPhone.

We live in two competing time realities. Media time rushes at the speed of the electrons that form it.

Our computers run at a speed clocked in gigahertz, and if tomorrow they run at terahertz, we’ll trade in our outdated desktop.

But underneath it, there is the time that there has always been: The solar time that is barely perceptible, plodding at the pace of starfish crossing undersea rocks.

In our media experience, everything flies by, helped by keyboard shortcuts.

It confuses us into thinking we live in a fast-paced world. But we don’t. We live in a slow-paced world that is chronicled by ever-faster media. A day still takes a full 24 hours to cycle.

Because so many of us work on computers and spend our leisure time watching video screens, it is easy to mistake the mediated world for the real one. We are social creatures, and the means we have created for communicating with each other can seem primary rather than derivative. cell phone pix

Our new gospel might read, “In the beginning was the flicker.”

The problem is that the faster we speed up our interaction with the world, as mediated by our technology, the less we are actually engaged with the world we live in. Instead, we are engaged with our iPhones, leaving our world to fend for itself.

This was brought home all the more forcefully the last time I went to the zoo.

We visited with a friend’s 8-year-old boy and watched as he paced from exhibit to exhibit, looked in for a maximum of 10 seconds and moved on to the next animal.

Trained by the Discovery Channel or Animal Planet, he expected instant animal action: The big cat should roar, the antelope should pronk. That is what they do on television, where all the “boring parts” are edited out. lions sleeping

The zoo, because it was there, in real time before his eyes, was a terrible disappointment. He hadn’t the patience to stand for a half-hour in front of the exhibit to see what animals actually do, as they sleep, scratch their furry behinds and tear the rinds off tangerines with their teeth.

The result wasn’t just boredom. It was a failure to identify with the animals, to scratch his bottom like the monkeys or to feel his own teeth in those tangerines. A failure of empathy.

What he sees on television are just pictures: information he can manipulate.

There is nothing human about it. It is experience as flat as the video monitor. But there in front of him at the zoo, if he had the patience to see it, is a 3-D world, one infinitely complex and fascinating. It contains not only unexpected behaviors, it contains sounds and — most pungently — smells that the iPad experience cannot deliver.

At such times, we can recognize that impatience is a vice. It blocks our understanding and our growth as humans. It diminishes the world and worse, shrinks our engagement with it.

The reverse is also true: The reason that patience is a virtue — and one worth cultivating even in the 21st century — is that it provides a chance to escape our egos.

It gives us the opportunity to empathize, at real time and with real beings, so that we may act morally and ethically.

Patience allows you to seep into the world and become part of it instead of just moving it efficiently from the in-box to the out-box, stamped by your momentary attention.

Instead of making life boring, patience makes it exciting and keeps us involved in it.