The Beginning of Empathy

It has been a terrible week for all of us in the U.S., to varying degrees. We couldn’t catch our collective breath before we had another public tragedy to grieve, and another, and another. I lamented on Twitter that in addition to sick days, our jobs should give us “crushing sadness for the state of our society” days, because I honestly felt such despair and powerlessness that it was hard to get out of bed. And I realized that I say that as someone speaking from a place of privilege. I wasn’t directly impacted by the murders I saw on the news this week, except that I try to practice empathy. It’s messy and I certainly haven’t mastered it, but I keep trying. What I’ve seen lately is a whole lot of people who seemingly have lost the ability or willingness to imagine the world from someone else’s perspective. Empathy is one of the tools God has given us to help in the hard work of loving our neighbors as ourselves. But it isn’t enough on its own. Imagining what someone else thinks and feels is fine, but God also gave us the gift of story. And if we want anything to change, I think it begins with simply listening. 

Like a lot of Americans, I am uncomfortable acknowledging my own privilege. I feel much more at ease writing about being a woman in ministry – even just being a woman in general – because as much as it sucks to experience sexism (and it really, really does), standing up and naming it, speaking truth to power, feels good. I tell my story so that those with different ways of being in the world know, to some small degree, what it’s like to be me. The harder job for me is to listen to different voices when I am the one with the power. That does not feel good. As a white, heterosexual, cisgender, upper middle class, able-bodied American, I cannot ignore the advantages I have and how they affect my life. (None of us can, though a lot of us keep stubbornly trying, probably because we misunderstand what is meant by the terms “advantages” and especially “privilege.” It doesn’t mean we don’t have any difficulties in life or that we should feel guilty about it. It simply means that the way a society was built and functions inherently favors those who are most like the people who designed the system.) What I can do, what I must do, is be willing to sit in the discomfort when voices different than mine are speaking. It isn’t my place to ask them to explain their experience for my benefit, at times and in ways that are easiest for me. But when those voices are speaking, I need to listen, without getting defensive or discounting their stories by telling them all the ways my life is hard, too. I need to hear what they have to say because their stories are not the same as mine, and they are every bit as true and as powerful.

I don’t know what it is to live with the fears that many Americans do. When I go out for an evening with friends, it’s okay if we don’t know which restaurant or bar we’re going to; I can know without calling ahead that I will be able to go into any of those businesses with no trouble. But my friends with disabilities cannot be as easily spontaneous, and I need to listen to their stories of having to pee in the parking lot of a fancy restaurant because the restroom door wasn’t wide enough for a wheelchair, or being stranded on a train platform for hours because an elevator was out of service. Without a second thought, I can reach out and hold my boyfriend’s hand or rest my head on his shoulder if we are on the street, in church, at the movies, anywhere. But my LGBTQ friends and family members don’t have the luxury of not thinking about it, and I need to listen when they talk about being fearful to show affection in public or getting verbally abused, spit on, and worse when they do.

When I’ve gotten pulled over by a police officer for speeding or having expired tags or a malfunctioning brake light, my worst fear was getting a ticket. But that experience is not the same for my Black friends and family members, so I need to listen when they talk about their gut-wrenching fear as they see blue lights in their rearview mirror, brought on by years of hearing stories and seeing videos of traffic stops that turned deadly in a heartbeat for people who looked like them. As the people I love go to work each day, I usually don’t worry that they might not come home that night. But that’s a fear my friends who have a police officer in their family live with every day, so I must listen when they talk about what it’s like as their loved ones put their lives at risk to do their job. And as I work every night in the relative safety of my hospital, I don’t often wonder whether a person I encounter has a gun or other weapon they might use against me and those around me. But that is a reality for the police officers and first responders whose work I so often take for granted, and I need to listen as they tell stories of the terrifying moments when they are forced to make split-second decisions that are literally a matter of life and death for themselves and the people they are sworn to protect and serve.

Every time some horrific act of violence makes the news, I think to myself, “Surely something will change now.” But it never does. Please, whoever you are reading this, please let’s allow this awful week to be the tipping point. Let’s stop insulating ourselves with people who think, look, believe, and act just like us, because that makes it too easy to fear and mistrust those who don’t. Let’s do the hard work of listening to stories from unfamiliar voices and finding the ways they intersect with ours, because there are always points of connection to be found. When we begin to see that, then we find the motivation to change the things that are hurting our neighbors as we understand that we all suffer together. And if you, like me, are in a position of privilege because of your skin color, sexual orientation, gender, or some other winning ticket in the genetic lottery over which you had no control, please understand that we have even more of a responsibility to listen and to get those in our communities listening, too. A conversation can’t get anywhere if both people are talking at once, and this country desperately needs some real conversation. Our voices have been the loudest for a very long time. It’s our turn to listen.

2 thoughts on “The Beginning of Empathy

  1. “Let’s do the hard work of listening to stories from unfamiliar voices and finding the ways they intersect with ours, because there are always points of connection to be found.” Brilliantly stated.

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