The Pedestrian is curious. In the best sense. A compilation of essays written by long-dead writers and today’s up-and-comers, The Pedestrian is dedicated to immortalizing what some may view as a dying art, the essay. With the rise of creative nonfiction, the essay has been sorely missing from many modern journals. The existence of this magazine is promising, and, like any good essay, ripe with curiosity, wonder, and philosophy.
The title of this first issue of The Pedestrian is called “Empathy.” Future titles will be “Tools,” “Play,” and “Quiet,” but I think “Empathy” is the best place to begin. For, an essay is generally rooted in observation, which naturally leads to an imagining, and hopefully an understanding, of the feelings of others.
The journal starts off with an essay by G.K. Chesterton, titled “Lamp-posts,” originally printed in 1921. What struck me most was his continued reference to his modern world and how advances like the omnibus quickly become commonplace. Cell phone, anyone? What’s more, he refers to the vulgarity of making objects common. The omnibus becomes just a “bus.” The beauty of the word “omni,” meaning “all,” is removed. While today’s common objects are much different than the ones existing in Chesterton’s early Twentieth Century London, there is a similar sense of de-sensitivity and loss of wonder.
Older, reprinted essays include works by C.S. Lewis, Robert Louis Stevenson, Virginia Woolf, and Madeleine L’Engle. Newer essays feature talented writers like Phillip Lopate, Silke Georgi, Anne Goldman, and Anna Walker Jones.
Another present-day essayist, Roman Krznaric, writes an essay titled “Empathy with the Enemy,” which talks about Mahatma Ghandi’s “unwavering belief in the need to empathize with one’s enemies.” Krznaric argues that although Ghandi’s message may be overly idealistic, “Empathy enables us to recognize the individuality of others and find common ground, which are necessary ingredients of any genuine and long-lasting reconciliation.” However, with empathy often comes moral dilemma. How do we reconcile our ideals of what is right with what our opponents believe is right? When a ruling-class tortures its citizens, it’s hard to feel anything but hatred for them. Yet, knowing how they tick is essential. Krznaric says:
This raises a crucial point that is often misunderstood, no matter what a person’s politics, religion, or moral code might be: the process of empathizing does not destroy the possibility for moral judgment. You can gain an understanding of somebody’s worldview without having to agree with their beliefs or principles. Moreover, the ability to step into someone’s shoes can place you into a strong position to reason with them and persuade them to change their views.
Discovering the roots of people’s beliefs and values can be the starting point in creating change. Needless to say, empathy is a rusty tool that needs to be oiled. They say you catch more flies with honey; showing your adversary empathy will yield better results than mere hostility. Krznaric’s essay is intelligent and timeless.
Krznaric also mentions The Theory of Moral Sentiments, by Adam Smith, from which several excerpts are reprinted in this issue of The Pedestrian. Smith’s book was first published in 1759, yet the message is similar. One cannot be moral without empathy (Smith uses the words “sympathy” and “compassion”). In order to make the right decision, we must understand the points of view of each party involved. Only then may we make the best choice for all.
While printing old essays may seem like a peculiar choice, The Pedestrian represents a graceful balancing act between old and new, reminding us that essays are both historically important as well as currently relevant. Furthermore, this issue delves into a complex topic whose examination may prove essential to an emerging global society.