Practicing empathy is not easy. To put our money where our mouths are, we must fearlessly challenge the limits to which our hearts will open. Our daily lives, our national and political affiliations come with biases we must constantly confront as we seek to expand our powers of empathy. Perhaps in the time we now live, we Americans are more divided into warring camps than ever before. And the values we cherish often inspire hatred in the hearts of not only our opponents in different parts of our country, but in our own families.
The commitment to empathy requires that we practice it especially with people or groups who we do not like. If we say we cannot imagine why an opponent could believe what they do, we have not practiced hard enough. Our great spiritual leader Marin Luther King said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.” Can we embrace his words? Can we live them? We can try. In the theatre we shed light on the heart of darkness so that it can be understood. And we defend the villains, testifying not that they are right, but that they are worthy of out compassion. We have imagined ourselves in their shoes and understood.
Sun Tzu in The Art of War famously said, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” Even when we are bitterly opposed and reconciled to the fact that conflict is inevitable, empathy can be the road to success. The exercise of knowing your enemy prepares you to understand how they may be approached and defeated. Feeling what they feel, fearing what they fear, hoping for what they hope for; if these practices do not put us on the road to peace, they can prepare us for war.
Aristotle said that tragedy promotes fear and pity in the heart of the audience: fear that the same fate might befall you. And once that fear is felt, pity for the fate of the fallen. And of course, many of the subjects of our great tragedies, from Oedipus to Macbeth to Keller in All My Sons, do horrible things. And yet, the purpose of drama is that we enter into their experience so that we can imagine that if our circumstances were similar, the same fate could happen to us. If we can imagine that, empathy is sure to follow.
– Artistic Director
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