We need the “empathicalism” of “Funny Face”

funny face

Audrey Hepburn, in the 1957 musical “Funny Face”

It may seem strange to conflate the whimsical 1957 Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire musical “Funny Face” with the atrocious treatment of children in concentration camps on our southern border. But, the children in those cages were on my mind (they usually are, of late) while my wife, Tammy, and I were watching Hepburn and Astaire dance through Paris a couple nights back.

What brought the migrant crisis to mind, along with the humanitarian crisis our government is fueling in Yemen, was the fictional philosophy of “empathicalism,” which Hepburn’s character, Jo, pursues with a passion.

Jo explains to Astaire’s character, Dick Avery, the philosophy is based on empathy, which he, in turn, relates to sympathy.

“Oh, it goes beyond sympathy,” Jo responds. “Sympathy is to understand what someone feels; empathy is to project your imagination so that you actually feel what the other person is feeling: you put yourself in the other person’s place.”

This is an important distinction. Seeing the inexcusable treatment of migrants in the “detention centers,” it is easy to have sympathy. We can feel bad for them, while maintaining a comfortable separation. We can even pray for them, without really taking on their trauma, suffering and fear. But, if we truly empathize with them, then we spiritually and emotionally enter the overcrowded cells. We smell the stench of sickness, shit and unwashed bodies. We feel ourselves surrounded by fear — among people who fled their homes in hunger, poverty and fear, only to find a government that has weaponized fear and suffering to deter asylum seekers (the textbook definition of terrorism).

Sympathy is passive. Empathy fundamentally calls us to action against oppression, poverty and hunger, because we have placed ourselves in the place of the oppressed, the poor and the hungry.

Dick, beginning to understand Jo’s passion for empathicalism, describes it as “Something like, ‘do unto others as you would have others do unto you.'”

Dick aptly relates Jo’s focus on empathy with the “Golden Rule,” from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 7:12. To treat others the way you would want to be treated means to put yourself in their place — to live your life by an ethos of empathy.

Jesus took this teaching further in John 13:34 — “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” Jesus, who accepted suffering and death in our place, calls us to love each other in the same way. We are to step into each others’ suffering, to live not in the selfish pursuit of our own ends, but with a passionate, reckless kind of love that pours out self for the sake of others. That is Gospel love. That is empathicalism.

What made this all so poignant for me within the context of watching “Funny Face” is that empathicalism, while a fictitious term, was very much a real way of life for Hepburn. While best known for her films and as a fashion icon, Hepburn was a lifelong advocate for the downtrodden and suffering, especially children, culminating in her service as a UNICEF ambassador from 1988 to 1992. Hepburn brought visibility and hope to the suffering in some of the hardest-hit corners of the globe, including Ethiopia, Turkey, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Sudan, Somalia, and Vietnam. She died in 1993, four months after her final tour as a UNICEF ambassador to Somalia.

Hepburn’s passion for serving the suffering — a passion that outstripped her character Jo’s embrace of empathicalism — was born of her own experience as a child in Nazi-occupied Holland. Food shortages during the occupation led to her developing acute anemia, respiratory problems and edema, as a result of malnutrition. But, it wasn’t her own suffering that impacted Hepburn the most. Rather, it was the suffering she saw inflicted on others.

She would later recall seeing Dutch Jews being loaded on trains bound for the concentration camps: “more than once I was at the station seeing trainloads of Jews being transported, seeing all these faces over the top of the wagon. I remember, very sharply, one little boy standing with his parents on the platform, very pale, very blond, wearing a coat that was much too big for him, and he stepped on the train. I was a child observing a child.”

Hepburn was a child of God, seeing, and empathizing with, a child of God. We cannot be sure, but I suspect she would have similar feelings at seeing children being crammed into cages.

It would be erroneous to claim the same conditions between Nazi concentration camps and the migrant concentration camps being run today by our government. But, it is not misplaced to see in the deliberate atrocities on our southern border the demand for an active, radical kind of empathy — the kind of empathy that leads an overwhelming social, economic and faith response to end said atrocities.

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Kate Cronin-Furman took up this topic in her June 29 opinion piece in the New York Times:

As a human rights lawyer and then as a political scientist, I have spoken to the victims of some of the worst things that human beings have ever done to each other, in places ranging from Cambodia to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Sri Lanka. What’s happening at the border doesn’t match the scale of these horrors, but if, as appears to be the case, these harsh conditions have been intentionally inflicted on children as part a broader plan to deter others from migrating, then it meets the definition of a mass atrocity: a deliberate, systematic attack on civilians.

Cronin-Furman goes on to advocate for practical ways to bring pressure to close the camps, by treating them, and the people who staff them, according to their nature — as illegal and immoral atrocities against humanity. Read her full piece here. There is no doubt politics are fueling these atrocities. And political pressure will have to be brought to bear to change them. But, as Hepburn pointed out shortly before her death, after seeing the suffering of starving children in Somalia, politics and politicians are not the root cause or cure for suffering.

“Taking care of children has nothing to do with politics,” she said. “I think perhaps with time, instead of there being a politicization of humanitarian aid, there will be a humanization of politics.”

I fear Hepburn would be greatly saddened to see how far we have regressed from her day to now — how far we have gone in the opposite direction from a “humanization of politics.”

For things to truly change, for the root causes of these atrocities to cease, we need the radical revolution of the Gospel. We need empathy to overpower greed. We need selfless love to conquer hatred and fear. We must demand all aspects of our policies and politics flow from that empathy, and make real the empathicalism of “Funny Face.”

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