The Outsiders was written by SE Hinton during the tumultuous times of the 1960s. The backdrop is a small southern town, much like the one SE Hinton grew up in, and two rival teen gangs fight for dominance. The two gangs are separated by economics. The Greasers are economically disadvantaged and the Socs are financially well off. The reader is told the story from the perspective of one of the young Greasers who gives us an explanation of what the world looks like from this “sub-group”.
The themes of this novel are my favorite part. It is certainly not the trite dialogue, the symbolism of Gone with the Wind, and the analogous references to Rebel soldiers. One of the themes is about Empathy. It’s threaded throughout the novel, and it is a topic that needs to be addressed in 2021. This leads me to today’s question: “What did I learn from the Greasers & the Socs?”
I no longer teach The Outsiders, but I love the relationship between Cherry and Ponyboy. For those of you who have never read it, yes, those are their real names. Cherry is a female Soc and Ponyboy is the narrator of the tale. They meet where all young people met in the 1960s-the drive in movie theater. As they talk and get to know each other, they slowly realized that their pre-conceived notions of the other are actually quite wrong. Ponyboy starts to see the Socs as people who have issues as well even though they have money, and Cherry sees that Greasers are smart, thoughtful and kind. It’s a beautiful moment when Cherry tells Ponyboy that things “are rough all over.” But at first, Ponyboy really can’t see what she’s talking about, so he thinks, “I really couldn’t see what Socs would have to sweat about — good grades, good cars, good girls, madras and Mustangs and Corvairs.” It is not until the end that Ponyboy realizes that this is in fact true.
The other aspect of this relationship is Ponyboy’s constant anger and frustration when he thinks he’s being given “pity” or “charity” as he calls it. He makes a strong distinction between understanding someone and pitying them. We call it Empathy. Empathy is where a person is able to see and understand someone else’s perspective on life. It’s when you see a situation through that person’s eyes, and it is the single most important gift we can give another person. Pity, on the other hand, is when we can only feel bad that something has happened or for the position the person is in. It takes no real energy or thought to pity another. It demotes them in your eyes. This is why Ponyboy recognized the dangers in pity. When you pity someone, you are above them looking down. When you show empathy, you empower the person because you are another who shares their vision.
Empathy is the skill we must all learn, and natural “born” Empaths must use to help heal the world. It is not until we learn to see the world through the eyes of those around us that the world will change for the better. But this does not happen over night, and it does not happen as simply as it seems to in The Outsiders.
At the end of the novel, Ponyboy realizes that his time with Cherry and her kindness is over and it only extends so far. She refuses to visit Johnny in the hospital after he is burned saving children from a burning church (the Jesus metaphor is definitely strong in this book). Ponyboy gets angry at first, but then seems to understand that the girlfriend of the Soc he murdered cannot be seen visiting him or even speaking to any Greasers. He turns and looks at her and asks her if she is able to see the sunset from her side of town. She responds “yes” and he says he can too. It is then she realizes that they both have green eyes. It’s a beautiful scene in the chapter before the big fight. It is the moment of Empathy achieved.
I remember the first time I read this scene and my eyes filled with tears. It was only a connection between two fictional characters, but it allowed me to see the important part Empathy plays in our personal healing. In the novel, it was the calm reminder before the painful storm.
So what can we do to build empathy in our own lives? Well, I think there are ways to do this.
- Recognize your Sunset moments. Who are those people in our life right now who you do not see eye-to-eye with? What’s one stationary point you can both look at together and know you see it the same way? Talk to them about that and feel the connection grow.
- Remind yourself that we are all made of the same stuff. Physical and economical differences are able to separate us because they are readily seen. We need to remember that it is the intangible that make us the same. Our feelings, wants, and needs are all the same. We are all hard-wired for love and belonging. Brene Brown writes the following: “A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need in all people.” If you feel disconnected, angry, frustrated when you don’t feel a sense of love and belonging, know that others feel that way as well. We can only begin to heal it when we recognize it happening in ourselves.
- Shift your gaze away from your feelings and think about the other person’s feelings. I always find it helpful to be physically away from a person when I do this. I shift my focus from my own feelings and I don whatever emotion the other person is feeling. If my son feels sad because he lost his video game, and I can’t possibly understand what he is going through, I know I am ready to do some shifting. I put aside my feelings of carelessness, and I replace it with a feeling of extreme caring about something I love. I imagine what it would feel like to lose it or break it, and I immediately feel something like understanding. I do not continue to try and look at the thing he cares about, but instead I shift it to something I care about. This is the only way. I will never care about video games as much as my son, but I do care about books. As soon as I replace the thing that is upsetting him with something that is similar but in my own experience, it is much easier to connect and feel empathy.
However you start to build empathy into your life, please know that it is a choice. It does not come naturally to most people. It is a painful process at times because when you see the situation in a real, empathic way, you will start to see where you have acted with insensitivity and disregard. Be careful. The Shame spiral will try and stop empathy at times. Don’t let it.
Love and Light, my Empathic Friends!!