The book I read today is a reasonably sizable volume  that deals with a skilled and highly intellectual spy named Robert Ames who the author believes could have healed the breech between the Arab Middle East and the West, largely by virtue of being highly skeptical, even hostile towards Israel and very empathetic about the plight of Palestinians and Arab nationalists in general. Now, I for one am skeptical both about the wisdom of this particular spy’s particular worldview, yet even so his life serves as an interesting example of how to build bridges and empathy with someone, and it is that which I would like to discuss, apart from concerns about the justice or lack of justice in the causes of those friends that he cultivated in his time as a clandestine CIA official before he was killed in the Beirut Embassy bombing in 1983. His death is a cautionary tale on the limits of empathy when one is not dealing with people who are honorable and decent.
In reading about this spy and his behavior, I was struck by the way in which he developed empathy for the Arab world, a particular part of the world I do not find very empathetic. He learned their language, studied their history and their literature, and was able to listen patiently to them tell their own stories, adding his own commentary to demonstrate his own familiarity with the mindset and worldview of people. Although he was a spy, and certainly a skilled man at keeping secrets, he was also someone of a high sense of honor, considering the people who were his sources of human intelligence as friends, worthy of respect and honesty, rather than merely paid sources to be ruthlessly exploited. He also tended to value the insights of those he befriended to such an extent that he showed a willingness to argue with other analysts who had different perspectives, including those who were more favorable to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan than he was as a partisan of the PLO.
The ways that Mr. Ames built up his empathy for the Arab world is a good template on how anyone can built empathy. For one, learn how to speak someone’s language. Learn how they think, see how they express themselves, learn their worldview, and the meanings and symbols that are attached to their communication. For another, read their history and study their culture. Whether it is similar or alien, once we know where someone comes from and their sensitivities and longings and heritage, we can better appreciate them as a person in their own right, and that allows us to treat them with honor and respect as a human being, and if they share our basic principles and a framework of respect, such strangers and aliens can become very close friends and partners in common causes. Additionally, spending time and communicating with others allows us to keep tabs on them, to understand what they are dealing with, and to keep the relationship alive.
None of these is anything particularly difficult. To be sure, Ames did not speak Hebrew, nor did he read up on the history of the Jews, and so his empathy and compassion was less for the Israelis than for the Arabs. That which we choose to study, that which we choose to learn and spend time on and focus on, is that which we will be empathetic about and compassionate about, if we have any sense at all. Yet to practice such empathy seems far more difficult than it should be. Why is it that we fail to march into the gap? And given that the behaviors which lead to building empathy for others are so straightforward, what qualities can be acquired to encourage others to show friendliness to us when basic friendliness and gentleness and kindness and curiosity and interest in others is not always enough? How do others learn to trust the evidence rather than the phantoms of their own misconceptions? If shady Arab terrorists can inspire wide-ranging and genuine friendships from intelligent Americans, surely it shouldn’t be hard for someone like myself, right?