Cruella, Empathy, and the Power of Backstory

Cruella | At the Movies | WDIY

Someone once posed the most absurd example to me in an podcast interview in what seemed to be an attempt to delegitimize empathy. “If a man told us he was sad because he couldn’t find his wife to kill her,” he told me, “we should not empathize with his sadness.” Um. Yeah. No one who isn’t a sociopath would do that. So what?

Oddly enough, empathy has become a target of some leaders. If what they are rejecting is an empathy that condones wife murderers, or other sundry sins, then we’re on the same page. What I wouldn’t be okay with is a move away from listening to people and caring about what makes them tick.

Explanation and excuse are two different categories, and empathy can encourage the former while avoiding the latter.

I was reminded of the importance of someone’s backstory last night when I took my youngest son out for dinner and a movie. We saw Disney’s new “Creulla.” I have to admit, she is among my least favorite characters in all the Disney movies. I find her quite annoying in about every conceivable way.

I like her a lot more now that Disney filled in what makes her who she is. That doesn’t condone any of her criminal behavior, of course. But it does allow you to connect with her character in terms of our shared humanity, and to, if nothing else, wish she had a better start at life. I won’t give spoilers, don’t worry.

Everyone has a backstory. Everyone’s story matters. “There are no little people,” Francis Shaeffer once told us. C.S. Lewis put this point more poetically:

“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.” 

Think about that the next time someone gets under your skin. There’s a reason they act they way the do. Understanding their reasons won’t make the challenges go away, but it might just soften your heart. And that’s a good thing.