Even though we were born on the same day in the same year, I don’t have much interest in Alec Baldwin or his views. Hence I enjoyed a mild schadenfreude last Friday when I saw headlines about him leaving an angry voicemail for his 11-year-old daughter. It was kind of funny for him to find himself the target of all the Tsk-Tsking for a change.
I didn’t have time to read the articles, though, so it wasn’t until I was driving home and listening to Jason Lewis that I heard the recording of the conversation as well as the background that explained that Baldwin was upset because his daughter, who doesn’t live with him, had developed the habit of not answering her phone for the pre-appointed phone calls that are part of his visitation rights and his efforts to parent from across the country. Given that understanding, I was more sympathetic to him as I listened to the tape and heard him venting the frustration, hurt and humiliation he was experiencing because of his daughter’s behavior and thought that it didn’t reflect well on her that she’d act that way and then even turn over the recording to the media.
“That’s a child,” I thought, “with issues.” Not the least of which is being called a “selfish pig” by your father. I couldn’t help but think about tape and the relationship after I got out of the car and it suddenly occurred to me that Baldwin’s outburst, while initiated by his daughter, was all about how she had made him feel, what he had to put up, what efforts he had made and what he wasn’t going to put with. In short, it was all about HIM, and I thought that selfishness perhaps runs in the family.
Not that my children haven’t been the catalysts for some of my own tirades and that my own rants are known for their flawless reason and selfless eloquence, but it occurred to me that the things that have most upset me (and let me emphasize that there have been very few of these occasions) are times when they were inconsiderate of others or short-sighted in their actions. My concerns then were not in the offense that they may have done to me or to others (even if inadvertent) but in terms of the quality of their character and the potentially negative consequences they could experience as they grew up if their offense wasn’t recognized and dealt with. Part and parcel of that has been to inculcate in them a second-nature awareness of how their words and actions affect others and how empathy is better than sympathy.
Last week the Fundamentals in Film class that I teach to teenage boys watched To Kill a Mockingbird, and our discussion during and after the movie was about courage, commitment to do what is right and the part that prejudice and preconceptions plays even today in events such as the Duke lacrosse case or even the shootings at Virginia Tech. Perhaps the greatest lesson, however, is Atticus’ belief that you can’t really know a person until you’ve walked around in his skin for a little bit; i.e., put yourself in that person’s shoes and go for a little walk. Sociopaths like the Virginia Tech shooter (I won’t even use his name, given his desire for notoriety) are completely wrapped up in themselves and their feelings and have not a whit’s worth of concern or empathy for their victims and their families. Mass murder takes it to the extreme, but our own lack of awareness can also be devastating to others and (to be selfish) a source of great regret for ourselves later.
Empathy doesn’t automatically excuse or justify another’s actions, especially if they are heinous, but it can help us to understand them and to ponder our own shortcomings in a beneficial, not abusive, way. I empathize with Alec Baldwin, but I hope this experience and lesson (painful as it may be) ultimately has a positive effect on him and his daughter.