January 7, 2015
The Surmounting of Oppression by Means of Empathy Birthing Resilience
Discuss the idea(s) developed by the text creator in your chosen text about the ways in which an individual’s resilience is shaped by empathy.
Empathy shared between two individuals is a force of undefined power and prowess. The ability humans share in being able to not just feel kindness, but share understanding is an ability that can be compared to a lighted match in the dark: it provides not only warmth and comfort, but also illuminates possibilities originally unseen. If empathy is a light, then darkness is oppression: a debilitating, blinding shroud which inhibits its victims from seeing the truth of their scenario. Therefore, through the presence of empathy in the face of oppression, the addition of light in the dark, the clarity which follows brings forward the act of resilience. The active opposition against circumstance is merely a reaction brought forth by the presence of empathy. And just as a light banishes darkness through presence alone, so too does empathy wield resilience in order to displace oppression. One might argue the presence of empathy in an oppressed individual’s life provides them with strength enough not just bare the struggles of life, but to have resilience enough to overcome them. In Khaled Hosseini’s novel A Thousand Splendid Suns, the trials and eventual triumph of the character of Mariam, a social outcast without purpose, can be traced to the addition of empathy in her life, giving her strength enough to not just simply exist, but live a life of value.
A life without the presence of empathy can only be described as emotionally deficient void, depriving the barer of such an existence purpose and motive to rise above their circumstances. Such a life is initially thrust upon Mariam, a bastard child who after her mother hangs herself, is married off to a man twice her age by her apathetic father. The idea of endurance is a key aspect of Mariam’s life, with her mother going so far as to tell her that the only thing a “woman like [her]” (pg.17) needs to know is how to “endure”, subconsciously implying that as a member on the edges of society, her only function in life should be to withstand the loads of cruelty placed upon her, but never to rise above it, as such a feat would be impossible. This philosophy is carried by Mariam into her abusive marriage to Rasheed. After she miscarries and proves unable to bare him a son, the relationship becomes increasingly violent, with Rasheed going so far as forcing Mariam to eat rocks when dissatisfied with her cooking. Despite feeling one of her molar’s break, Mariam chews and swallows the rocks, all in the name of endurance, and yet in this action there is no resilience, only docile acceptance of the situation. Mariam consistently displays symptoms of crushingly low self-esteem throughout the beginning portion of the text; a key factor to why this is lies rooted in the lack of both kindness and understanding in every person who Mariam encountered so far in her life. Unable to form connections and relationships, she remains on the fringes of society, as there is no one else around her to motivate her to be resilient. In other words, she is living in a state of constant darkness, devoid of all light and sense of belonging. For Mariam there is only the apathetic pretense of living in the name of endurance, thus proving that a lack of empathy will likewise condition a lack of resilience and thus the toxic placidity to a scenario.
Though lack of human connection will inhibit the presence of resistance, it need also be understood that the gained presence of empathy in an individual’s life will situate the growth of resilience. As the text progresses, Rasheed takes another wife in the form of Laila, a woman whose presence prompts significant psychological growth in Mariam through the added presence of kindness and understanding in her life. Both women are victims at the hands of their monstrous husband, and threw this mutual suffering and understanding, they develop a bond that begins to empower Mariam with purpose. This is clearly exemplified when Laila goes to the hospital for the birth of her second child and the nurse informs her she will need a cesarean section but that they have no anesthetic, thus prompting Mariam to follow her and hold her hand for the entirety of the procedure. The presence of Mariam is questioned in the operating room, and when asked if she is Laila’s mother, she confidently responds with “I am.” This new-found confidence in the initially mousy Mariam is crucial when examining the growth of her character, as it signifies not only change, but also that she now has a purpose in her life, giving her strength to face challenges rather than apathetically bare them. The catalyst for such change is undeniably empathy added through the presence of Laila, thus proving the potency of its presence in an individual’s life in order to create empowerment. The mutual understanding and compassion Mariam experiences through Laila’s presence in her life not only validates her cause for strife, but so to brings the notion that one should not just simply attempt to cope with oppression, but rather begin to attempt its overthrow. In seeing Laila suffer abuse at Rasheed’s hands, Mariam begins to feel compassion for her, but more importantly she begins to feel compassion for herself. The added presence of empathy for Laila creates room for Mariam to have the epiphany that if she does not agree with the way Laila is treated, then she cannot have satisfaction in her own situation either. This marks the birthing of Mariam’s resilience, akin to the lighting of a fire, and thus from embers flares a life with purpose.
As empathy becomes more omnipresent in an individual’s life, it can be deduced that so too will their desire to fight against oppression, and through consistent battling of circumstance, one will be able achieve alleviation from domination. This result is achieved by Mariam, as she eventually kills Rasheed by means of hitting him over the head with a shovel, an action motivated by desire to protect Laila, who prior to this was being strangled. By overpowering Rasheed, Mariam conquers her circumstance, leaving the old motto of simply “enduring” far behind her. Instead she chooses to take action, and thus signifies that she is no longer willing to accept a life without purpose. The fact that Mariam’s motivation is to protect Laila is key as well, as it symbolizes how all of her growth has been rooted in the empathy she and pseudo daughter harbor for one another. Empowered by protectiveness, Mariam surmounts her circumstance and continues her resilience as she accepts the death penalty for her crime, allowing Laila and her children to flee to the safety of Pakistan. Now while some might argue the acceptance of death to be docile, it need be noted that Mariam’s actions are not rooted in desire to die, but rather the maternal desire to protect Laila. Mariam’s self-sacrifice is true heroism; she proves resilient until the end, facing her death with both insight and calm. The final thought given by Mariam is “She was leaving the world as a woman who had loved and been loved back…A person of consequence at last.”(pg.329). This creates a sense of nobility in death, juxtaposing the pitiful death given to Rasheed in order to further prove Mariam’s to be triumphant. In selflessly dying, Mariam displays tremendous empathy and resilience, proving herself to be a woman of purpose and thus signifying her ability to rise above being a social outcast and the fallacy that she will never matter. Such an achievement would not have been plausible without the addition of human connection in Mariam’s life, as it transformed a woman who believed herself to be an insignificant bastard child into a hero, endurance into resilience, and a life of oppression into one of purpose.
The character growth of Mariam, the protagonist of Khaled Hosseini’s novel A Thousand Splendid Suns, precisely proves how the addition of resilience in an oppressed individual’s life cannot occur without the presence of empathy. The genuine understanding and compassion the two women share for one another serves as the catalyst for sparking Mariam’s success in not simply being able to withstand the horrors of her life, but surpass them. The light of empathy brought into Mariam’s life sparks a fire of resilience within her, burning with the strength of a thousand splendid suns, tearing through the darkness of her oppression, and gifting her with the strength to find deliverance and purpose.