We?ve divided the world into us versus them?an ever-shrinking population of good people against bad ones. But it?s not a dichotomy. People can be doers of good in many circumstances. And they can be doers of bad in others. It?s true of all of us. We are not sufficiently described by the best thing we have ever done, nor are we sufficiently described by the worst thing we have ever done. We are all of it.
We are in a dangerous moment because every kind of curiosity is under attack?scientific curiosity, journalistic curiosity, artistic curiosity, cultural curiosity. This is what happens when the abiding emotions have become anger and fear. Underneath that anger and fear are often legitimate feelings of being ignored and unheard?a sense, for many, that others don?t care what it?s like in their shoes. So why offer curiosity to anyone else? Once we lose the desire to understand?to be surprised, to listen and bear witness?we lose our humanity. Among the most important capacities that you take with you today is your curiosity. You must guard it, for curiosity is the beginning of empathy. When others say that someone is evil or crazy, or even a hero or an angel, they are usually trying to shut off curiosity. Don?t let them. We are all capable of heroic and of evil things. No one and nothing that you encounter in your life and career will be simply heroic or evil. Virtue is a capacity. It can always be lost or gained. That potential is why all of our lives are of equal worth.
And I suddenly remembered a lesson a professor had taught about brain function. When people speak, they aren?t just expressing their ideas; they are, even more, expressing their emotions. And it?s the emotions that they really want heard. So I stopped listening to the man?s words and tried to listen for the emotions. ?You seem really angry and like you feel disrespected,? I said. ?Yes,? he said. ?I am. I am angry and disrespected.?