In pursuit of empathy

If a stranger asks me for money, I give it to them.  I encourage my kids to do the same.  In the nature vs. nurture battle, I’m a nurture person.  I believe I’m no better than someone living on the streets, I was raised with access to college, travel, books, music.  If I were raised in their shoes, our lives would reverse.  Some of our friends agree and some disagree.  But that’s fine.  We’re Americans.  Disagreement is what we’re all about – it’s a free country.  I think of myself as an empathetic person.  I relate well, I put myself in the shoes of others.

During communism, electrified barbed wire split the border between Austria and Slovakia.   Today, it’s the most peaceful of fields – a row of apricot trees just coming into fruit, a field of sunflowers shortly blooming.  It’s bucolic.  Our Slovak friends remember armed guards, bunkers every kilometer, people dying in vain attempts to escape.  From their perspective, it was hell.  There’s a monument at Devin Castle to the 300 or so people shot to death trying to swim the Moravian River to Austrian freedom during the 40 plus years of communist rule in Slovakia.

We visited the Vojenske Cemetery with these local friends.  They reminisced matter of factly about life during communism.  It wasn’t all bad, they had food, television, work.  Their basic needs were met.  Freedom of movement was forbidden.  As we bike the road to Austria, they rejoice in an open border – it’s unbelievable.  They laugh as we cross it.  We drop by an Austrian cafe for strudel and coffee.  They join us.  We’re free to pedal about blissfully secure and totally free.

The easiest and quickest way back to town is thru the communist block housing of Petrazalka.  It’s painted bright colors today.  It doesn’t look threatening to me.  Our friends suggest we return thru Austria – taking a longer loop back to the border crossing and home.  They hate Petrazalka and prefer to avoid it.  They remember the small family homes dotting the fields before the communist razed the village to build the stark block apartments housing workers.  In general, they don’t go thru Petrazalka.  Now that we have a free border – a cruise thru Austria is an available luxury, avoiding Petrazalka a long awaited priviledge.

I enjoy returning the long way.  Austria – with its brightly colored homes, green grass, flower filled window boxes – is a cyclers’ paradise.  But still, it startles me to realize how Petrazalka evokes no similar feelings in me.  I can’t relate.  Nothing in my life approximates their experiences.  I’ve been blessed with dismissively crowing “Hey, it’s a free country” to anyone trying to exert influence over my decisions, actions, words.  It’s the battle cry of the American.  I can’t relate to controlled movement, oppression, concrete block apartments, government take over.  I’ve never stood on the hill to admire freedom elusively playing in the fields across an impassable border.  Empathy remains a goal just out of reach.

Categories: Ruminations

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