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Gary Horton: Will we forget our empathetic selves?

Full Speed to Port!

Posted: September 29, 2010 4:55 a.m.
Updated: September 29, 2010 4:55 a.m.

LONDON - "Children," Mother exhorts her three preteens, "Pray for those imprisoned and for all those held against their will." Mother has good cause for the plea and her children listen attentively. So does the audience, comprised mainly of parents with their own children, sitting on either side of the train tracks upon which this theatrical stage is constructed.

We're at the Waterloo train station in London, where the northernmost platform has been amazingly converted into a working stage with seats on either side and a real train track and train running through the middle of the stage - and throughout the play.

"The Railway Children," originally published as a children's novel in 1905 by English writer Edith Nesbit, has been wonderfully brought to life in this real, working Waterloo train station.

In the play, "Mother's" husband and the father of their three children, is based on a true characterization of Capt. Alfred Dryfus, a Jewish French artillery officer falsely accused in 1894 of selling state secrets to Germany.

Scapegoated by authorities, he's rushed through flawed justice with men rushing father away, rendering mother husbandless, children fatherless and all impoverished at a time and place with no safety nets for children or anyone else.

This Waterloo train station turned-theater is filled with mums and pops with their children, watching as this upper-middle-class family is, without warning, reduced to poverty and relocated to a small, borrowed cottage in a poor, rural town 90 miles from London. There they live in obscurity, hiding from the shame of the unjust verdict on father.

Happily, in this children's story, all's well that ends well. The three kids quickly learn the only thing happening in their remote village is the train station, soon spending most of their time interacting with the various intriguing characters passing through the station.

Through all their adventures, the three well-raised children connect with townspeople and rail passengers, building relationships that share and share alike, creating community among the community.

An itinerant Russian dissident author is given room and board to be reunited with his lost family. Wounded paper-chase players are rescued from train tunnels. A tough train-station engineer is softened up as the children arrange birthday presents for him from the entire village. And a potential train wreck is averted when the children run ahead waving flags warning the oncoming 9:15 train of the landslide ahead.

Ultimately, the play is a morality tale about human empathy - that special ability that allows us to reach beyond ourselves to understand and meld with the feelings and conditions of others. The overriding theme: We are all in this life together.

Poor, rich, old, young, Jewish, Christian - whatever. We are tied and bound together, and as we act constructively on our empathic feelings, we raise one another up for the good of all.

We were in London for a review with the Wharton Business School when my wife Carrie and I saw the play. Our Wharton speaker was futurist guru Jeremy Rifkin. His ironic topic: the empathic civilization.

Rifkin teaches that humans are innately wired, not for pursuit of gross self-interest but rather our natural inclination is cooperative existence and collaborative work.

And now, as the industrial revolution is empowered by the electronic revolution in connectivity, we have an unparalleled opportunity to build on our empathic characteristic in education, workplaces, governments and social interactions.

We are so connected today we're almost cortex-to-cortex.

We know the joys and suffering in the world virtually as they unfold.

Earthquakes in Haiti? Explicit scenes explode all over the world within 60 minutes on Youtube. Floods in Pakistan? Ditto. And personally so, as hundreds of private cameras take us in for close-ups of those suffering.

And of happier times? You broadcast pictures of your life to the whole world on Facebook. Much of humanity is now connected at light speed. Why do we do this? Because we like to connect and be connected. We are empathetic beings.

The more empathic countries that have pulled away are now ranked as the very highest in life quality in the industrialized world. Finland, for example, is No. 1 in education, business transparency and health care.
The rest of Scandinavia is essentially Nos. 2, 3 and 4.

These largely socialized countries are highly empathic, sharing large amounts of public money on universal education, health care, social care and shared, public infrastructure.

Americans are loath to pay taxes, but meanwhile the U.S. has fallen to number 10 in education and No. 23 in health care. We are slipping fast as we turn inward and become an individualistic, wealth-stratified country.

While the Obama presidency promised an era of increased empathy in American soc iety when we would further transcend race and class, we're now seeing blowback as a prolonged recession has fueled the tea party movement with its platform based on reduced sharing, reduced empathy for those less fortunate and increased individualism.

Just as other cultures increasingly build on their connective and empathic qualities, we seem to be moving backwards, ignoring our empathic natures and withdrawing to "every man for himself."

London is nothing if not more diverse than most spots in America. In this world city, Londoners of all colors have packed the Waterloo station to enjoy a play and teach their children empathy and caring for others.

Oddly, at this pivotal point in time which provides and requires more connectedness than ever, a growing portion of Americans want to go backwards, forgetting the brother so many have promised to help keep.

I'm reminded that every Christmas, Americans watch "A Christmas Carol" over and again, but then forget the story's moral later in the year come tax time and election day.

Before casting our upcoming votes, we might all want to pause to consider our connectedness and interdependence - especially to those less fortunate.

Gary Horton is a Santa Clarita resident. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. "Full Speed to Port!" appears Wednesday in The Signal.


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