Innumerable concerns and superficialities constantly flood our minds and hamper our ability to perceive reality beyond its facade. The goal in the journalism of empathy is to sweep away the static of these obscurities and hear the fundamental undertones of truth’s music. For me, that involves an extended process of immersion featuring a unique segment I call the Sublimation Phase; which glimmered while I explored with only my conscience for company, Beirut, Lebanon, the old Paris of the Middle East, from its gregarious downtown of rolling arches, dance clubs, and gelato boutiques, to its harsh Shiite slums of bullet-ridden buildings, blood signed martyr posters, and menacing Hezbollah militants; which awakened while I treaded the streets of Baghdad, tasting the torment of Iraqis as bombs shook the ground beneath my feet and machine gun fire became an ominous morning alarm clock; which ripened while I trudged from Denver’s homeless shelters to Detroit’s black ghetto, sleeping on sidewalks and park benches, feeling the pain of America’s impoverished, and observing our country from the bottom of the barrel.
Sometimes it’s best to face unfamiliar anguish yet be determined to continue without knowledge of a destination – just wandering into the fray seeking the special roots of insight from which profound knowledge blossoms, depriving yourself not only of habituated luxuries, but of all things that bring to mind the life left behind, breaking off all contact with family and friends, discarding whatever system of thought is your home, and engrossing mind, body, and soul in the immediate environment.
Pretension on the freeway to truth is collected at the toll booth. Affluence blinds. You cannot successfully immerse yourself with human beings whose abject status belittles you, without completely abolishing your sense of self. You must fall to the level of your subject, hit the floor flat on your face, be stripped of your comfort, bent to the will of others, and robbed of your former propriety. So after enduring that harsh existence for some time, the freshness of spirit carried from home will perish, at which point, being exhausted and severely lonely, morale fails, mental withdrawal takes hold, and depression ensues. Then finally, in this coat of despair, you shall pierce the saran wrap of reality and taste the raw meat beneath. And instead of receiving your subjects like the bland information of a textbook, you shall intimately appreciate their underlying and unique significance.
Once becoming a forgotten, drifting human being, with nothing to lose and nothing to hold back, be like a snowball, always moving, always crossing into unknown territory, picking up all dirt and subtle elements along the way. Let truth make its print on you, not the other way around. Fall faster and bolder, and if you’ve gathered enough momentum by the end of your descent, you’ll discover upon hitting the ground, the genuine substance of snow.
Absorb the spirit of your subjects and approach their mind not from without but from within. Only then can you feel life in their shoes; only then can you understand their truth; only then, can you grow.
This is the journalism of empathy.