By Gerald “Strib” Stribling
One of the most awesome physical specimens of human being I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing was a dark-skinned African-American man named Dante, who was from Louisiana and was in my training platoon at Parris Island, South Carolina, in 1970.
Dante had the makings of a fine Marine. He was impressively strong and durable. None of the physical challenges of boot camp presented any problem to him. He was intelligent and had leadership potential. There was only one problem. Dante couldn’t read.
We were cannon fodder in those days. A Marine in 1970 was either in Vietnam, on his way to Vietnam, or on his way back from Vietnam. Recruiters did a lot of fudging to meet their quotas of warm bodies to convince gullible teenagers that a Marine in dress blues was irresistible to women. But I enlisted under no delusions. I grew up in the military. My parents were both soldiers. I enlisted because I wanted a college education, and the G.I. Bill was the only way I knew to get one.
I’d worked a summer in a steel mill and spent a dismal year as an undisciplined college student.
As much as I wanted an education, I wasn’t ready to get one yet. The Marines seemed a logical choice to me, because in those dark days it was the only way to enlist, other than to volunteer for the draft, under a two year active duty agreement. I guess you could say that I dodged the draft and avoided combat by joining the Marines.
I was certainly no Dante. It seemed like I brought up the rear on every conditioning run, and obstacle courses—forget it. I found them impossible to complete on my own.
I particularly had problems with the “wall,” which was literally an eight foot high wall that recruits had to jump up, grab hold of the top, and pull themselves over. I couldn’t do it. I never could do it. But in boot camp we learned quickly that it wasn’t enough to get over the wall yourself; the point was for all the recruits to get over the wall. Soon, there began a routine. The other guys in the platoon knew I needed help to get over the wall, and they made sure I got that help.
One night in the barracks early in our training, the senior drill instructor called out for anyone in the platoon that had some college education. A few of us did, and so I was given the job of teaching Dante how to read.
All we had in the way of reading materials was a New Testament and the Marine Corps Guidebook. We worked a half hour before taps, and whenever the rest of the platoon received group punishment, we were exempt, as it was otherwise good study time.
He was a quick enough learner, and as soon as he developed some word attack skills (ironic when you think about it) he could muddle along well enough to pass his written tests.
Once I got knocked out—not during a training exercise, but rather from slipping on a soapy concrete floor and landing smack on the back of my head. It didn’t take long for me to come to, but when I opened my eyes there was Dante’s face, so close to mine I could feel his breath, with a look of genuine concern on his face.
His face showed empathy.
The Buddhist definition of compassion consists primarily of empathy. You can go farther than that through actions you may be able to take on behalf of others, but empathy is often enough. Sympathy is when you feel sorry for someone, but empathy is identifying with another person’s suffering. It would be wrong of me to say to people with PTSD, particularly those who have suffered sexual assault or abuse, that I “feel your pain,” and “can imagine what you are going through.” I can’t imagine what they’re going through. How could I possibly feel their pain?
I can only empathize.
I can try to imagine what they’re going through. I can share their outrage, but I can’t share their sense of violation. I can be a good friend and listen when sufferers need listening to, and distraction when they’re depressed. Empathy means knowing that someone is on your side. An empathetic friend is someone who can make you laugh.
I suppose you could say that there is empathetic hatred. Recently a Buddhist monk in California was beaten up by people who thought he was a Muslim.
Personally, I know nothing about hate. I’ve despised a few politicians in my day. And I’ve vaguely fantasized about doing violence to someone (the Marines taught me how to dislocate an attacker’s elbow). And I’ve had to be a threatening presence a time or two to prevent violence or to stop violence. But I don’t know from hate. I don’t get it.
Maybe it’s low testosterone, but the only things I hate are Notre Dame and University of South Carolina sports teams.
Editor: Dana Gornall