Gratitude and Power

A soldier from the Congo looked into my eyes. Or, at least, his avatar did. I moved a little to the right, but the program tracked the movement of my virtual-reality headset and kept the soldier’s eyes locked on mine. For several minutes, I had been watching him as he answered questions about his experience of war. I could not see the interviewer; the voice of the artist who created experience, Karim Bin Khelifa, came through my headset, gently asking this man why he fought, what he loved, who his enemies were, how he imagined peace.

The questions ended. The soldier and I, transported by virtual reality into a blank white room in the middle of the MIT Museum, looked at each other. Then he inclined his head towards me and said, “Thank you for listening to my story.”

For me, this is the most powerful moment in Bin Khelifa’s striking creation, The Enemy. It is one thing to read about another person’s experience, or hear a story on the radio or in a video. Then we listen in on a conversation, knowing it comes to us from another place and another time. The details may be very moving, but we remain outside the story. Using virtual reality, The Enemy puts combatants in the same room with us and asks us to bear witness to the toll that violence has taken on their lives.

Gratitude has power. To thank someone is to see them, to value them, and to let them know that whatever action they took is now part of their identity in your eyes. When the soldiers looked at me and thanked me for hearing their stories, their words had a moral weight. Now when I hear news about the countries they come from and the wars they endure, these far-away events now have a very human face. They are happening to someone I have met. Someone who has looked into my eyes and said “Thank you.”

Tickets to The Enemy at the MIT Museum are available here. Join us Thursday, November 30 for Are We the Enemy?, a program about the neuroscience of conflict and empathy.

 

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