It’s Not Just The Message

Have you spent time looking at the cute videos on Facebook?  Not just the kittens and puppies at play, but the ones that show empathetic behavior amongst animals?  The ones that really get me are the bonds that are formed between different species, the dog and lion story, or the pig nursing a kitten… those little gems put a smile on my face, and offer a life lesson for me that transcends the cute factor.

Star Trek (original Season 3) – The Empath – 1969 NBC Television Kathryn Hays as Gem, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelly and William Shatner

I recall an episode on the original series Star Trek, where Kirk, Spock and McCoy are held prisoners so that they can provide training for an empath. As with many of the scripts of that series, the point was a little heavy handed, but the point was made. Empathy, while perhaps a common disposition, needs nurturing and prompting to benefit a society.

Empathy is defined on Wikipedia:

Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other person’s frame of reference, i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.”

There are other elucidations on the topic, but that’s the general idea.

Just recently, I was having a conversation with someone and I posed a question regarding censorship, which prompted the following response, “It will literally have no effect on my life, ever, so why should I care?” I was taken aback. The person who said this to me, who shall remain nameless, is known to me to be a loving and caring man who dotes on his children and gives ample demonstrations of support to his friends and family.

The response was, I suspect, more of a position to forward an argument than a heartfelt expression, but the very concept of the response gave me pause. Actually, it ended the discussion, because in that moment I was heart-struck.

It reminded me of the constant barrage of opinion that we now have in front of us on a daily basis.  All sides of the political spectrum have come to parrot information that is echoed over and over.  That source of information is accessed by more people daily everywhere:  Social Media.

Social Media

Social Media has had a profound effect on our culture, the culture of humanity. A platform has been created where we can say anything we want at any time without regard to the consequence.  Our opinions have become the focus of our attention. We hunt out those we agree with so we can get “likes”, and we ostracize those we disagree with, sometimes in the most demeaning of fashions.

The less we know of the people that we disagree with, the more likely we will fall to insult and aggressive voices to silence their opinions. The social consequence is that we are losing our sense of empathy, swiftly moving to tribalism. While feeling safe among those with which we feel a kindred spirit is comforting, the probability of creating an “us vs them” dynamic increases.

If there are lesson we should embrace from recorded history, it is that tribalism leads to war, while empathy promotes peace.

If you follow my writing at all, you’ll know that I have long discussed the value of theatre-story telling as a driving force of empathetic behavior. The very core of humanity is touched when we relate and understand an opinion or experience different from our own. This is not a suggestion that we adopt every opinion we hear; it is a suggestion that, allowing us to consider lives different from our own, allows us to feel less hostile to those we don’t know. There is a diminishment of the “us vs them” paradigm.

While religions have been formed around the principles of empathy, too often fear of the unknown prompts the want of security to insulate the principals of a religion and use them as a cudgel to subdue non-believers.  Become one of us or die.

It’s a constant battle of instinct, self-preservation, tribal thinking, just a step above herd mentality, and empathy. Just because instinct tells a lion it’s okay to kill a dog, or for that matter a pack of dogs to attack a lion it is in the befriending of different species that allows a lion and a dog to become best friends. There’s even an Aesop’s fable on the topic, the lion and the mouse.

Theatre makes a difference

Theatre endures because its very nature is to illuminate the human condition. It prompts us to experience the platitudes that we so quickly forget.  Walk a mile in another man’s shoes… Do onto others… Do you see what I see… The examples are endless.  But we as a society have to be reminded that in every circumstance of the human condition there is another story.

Theatre teaches us that we can feel someone else’s pain, that we can find joy in looking beyond our boundaries. And theatre allows us to see some of consequences that become possible if we live and act differently.

While theatre is and should forever be entertaining, it’s a vehicle of communication. It’s an unending glimpse into the possibilities of humanity, exploring the strengths of our beliefs, our actions and life lessons that prompt our considerations.

When we go to experience theatre we embrace all that, and for the time we sit in those seats, we are engaged in lives other than our own. Our own voices and opinions are muted.  Our attention is pulled from ourselves and our empathetic nature is engaged. We collectively, as an audience, bond to the world that is presented. That is what makes the theatre experience unique.  We collectively in unison are drawn to feel.  We may not all agree as to what we feel, but we all feel something, and in that there is a lesson.

Some would argue that the video of a pig nursing a kitten is theatre.  It is a life lesson.  But right in front of that video, and right after that video, are the raging prompts of opinions. What it lacks, and what is so necessary, is that we experience these lessons collectively, as a community. When we sense that others are in the same space, feeling and thinking on a singular focus, we expand our opportunities of community. Our feelings are validated, our empathy is promoted. Our society is made a little stronger.  FL 

About Peter Finlayson

Peter Finlayson is the Founder, Publisher and Editor-in-chief of FootLights magazine and While working on a prelaw program at the University of Michigan, he happily got involved with the theatre program. Much to his mother’s chagrin, law school never happened, but in a career spanning more than 4 decades, Peter has performed, directed or designed more than 150 productions. In his spare time, he is working on a new play. You can follow him on Twitter @Thtrdog .

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