When it comes to empathy, I was late to the party. I arrived to find the presents opened and the cake mostly eaten. I was embarrassed at my inexcusable tardiness.
Lately, empathy has been occupying a significant chunk of space in my thoughts. How do some of us, even the godless heathens, come to empathy so early and so naturally while others, even the good Christians, struggle with imagining ourselves in the shoes of others? Why is empathy innate in some and hard-learned by others?
I look at my life and ask when my own empathy developed. Not all at once, that much I know. My empathy came by millimeters at times, a painfully slow awakening.
Those of us cursed with vivid memories of childhood can probably look back at one or two cringe-worthy, empathy-lacking moments. For me, the earliest involved fish. For some reason, bugs and fish never really felt like animals to me as a child, at least not the way cats or dogs or birds did. Fish, to young me, were soulless, unfeeling creatures. And, yes, I still kill and eat fish but I endeavor to do so humanely. This incident was not humane.
How old was I? Nine? Perhaps? Younger? I’m not sure. I’d traveled to Victoria with my friend “R” and her mother, to visit someone who may have been a grandmother or an aunt—that part of the memory fails me. My friend R and I were bored, as kids often were before tablets and smart phones and 24 hour entertainment. We walked to the beach, collected a bunch of small fish in a bucket, and brought them back to the house where we performed scientific experiments on them. We set out several jars and put a single fish in each jar. The “test” was to see how the fish reacted to varying levels of salt in the water. Some of the jars had regular ocean water, some had fresh, some had a combination of salt and fresh, some had ocean water with extra salt added. It was all very fascinating to us then and all quite stomach-churning to me now.
I don’t have to tell you how most of the fish fared in the end, do I?
I’m not trying to squick you out, I only want to show you what a person lacking in all but basic empathy is capable of. I wasn’t a bad kid. I was nice to other humans and pets. I was the kid teachers would ask to show new students around or look after the class gerbil for winter break because they could trust me to be kind. In fact, as kids go, I bet I was pretty average in the empathy department.
And, because I lived a safe, quiet life in the ‘burbs, I stayed average.
My first big leap toward greater empathy didn’t occur until the end of my first marriage. How, I wondered after it was over, had I ever asked of abused women, “Why don’t they just leave?” These people I had seen as pitiful weaklings, cowards unable to do something as simple as pack a bag and walk out a door? Well, now, at the age of twenty-five, I was one of them. The answer to the question, “Why don’t they just leave?” is a thousand shades of complicated, answers upon answers, twined together like the worst fishing tackle mess you have ever seen. The answer is also simple and boils down to “Because they do not love themselves enough”.
I was a tough young woman. I regularly stood toe-to-toe with men much bigger and stronger than me and traded punches and kicks without flinching, but that was easy compared to packing a bag and walking out the door. I did not love myself enough. Even after I had finally worked up the courage to leave, it would be several more years before I could look at myself and really like what I saw—inside and out.
That first big leap toward empathy was awful, humbling, and, yet, it gave me strength. You see, empathy connects us to others. Like the Force, it binds us. There is strength in connection and community.
My mom’s death pushed me further down the empathetic path. So this was loss? What a horrible feeling.
I back-slid a bit once my stunt career took off and I was suddenly flush with cash and frequently the subject of awe and admiration. But then there were more failures and struggles and I was back on Empathy Road once more.
The combination of peri-menopause, loss of my father and sister, and uprooting from my Nelson community was as a gate being closed behind me. There is no other way forward now but with empathy.
If there is a silver lining to human suffering it is that, usually, it makes us more aware of and sympathetic to the suffering of others. I am proud of my empathy not because it makes me superior to others but because of what I endured to acquire it.
I’ve been thinking about empathy in the post-Trump, post-truth world. What a struggle we face—and by “we” I mean many of us in the western world at this moment, not just Americans. It is so easy and so tempting to shut off our empathy and dehumanize “the enemy”, whoever we imagine that to be, depending on which side our loyalty falls.
And yet, I cannot deny what is right in front of my eyes—those spewing hate and those turning a blind eye to that hate. How do I reconcile the reality that there are people in my circle of friends (some who occupy the inner circles) who I know to be decent, kind and intelligent but who also support or voted for a fascist? These people in my life may be a distinct minority but that doesn’t change that I have laughed and traveled and shared heartaches and broken bread with them. Their willingness to overlook such blatant lies, dangerous doublespeak, and violence-inciting rhetoric chills me. I want to grab them by the shoulders and shout, “If someone spoke this way to your wife or sister or daughter, you would punch them in the face! Why is it acceptable simply because it’s not directed toward you?”
The morning after the election, like so many others, I was caught in the gyre of shock and disbelief. What could I do? Nothing. Not my country. Powerless.
Later that day, talking with one of my dearest American friends, we discussed the results and he explained how Trump’s promised repeal of the Affordable Care Act would mean my friend would once more be without health insurance. I remembered how relieved he had been when he had been approved, and I’ve watched as his health has benefited since that time. He was pragmatic about the sad possibility of an end to that insurance; I was not so stoic. As we typed back and forth, my eyes grew hot and a knot of dread cinched in my gut. I brushed away tears. How could they do this to my friend? How could they even think about it?
I have other friends who now exist in a state of fear. Regardless of which promises Trump keeps and which fall by the wayside (next to the stacks and stacks of other lies), the veil of civility has been ripped away and the worst aspects of human nature have been encouraged to run free. I feel my friends’ fear. I feel their uncertainty. I feel like a small fish in a jar, looking out at all the other fish in their jars, wondering what will become of us.
In the friends department, there are a few who rest at the other end of the empathy spectrum from Trump supporters. This year, two sets of my friends have organized and carried out sizable humanitarian projects in Nepal. I can’t begin to state the enormity and complexity of these endeavors, the innumerable pieces that had to be put into place to bring help to people on the other side of the world.
Becky Rippel of Peak Freaks, working with First Steps Himalaya, headed up the Earth Bag Build project. Her husband, Tim Rippel, led a group of local and international volunteers to build an earthquake resistant school for Nepalese children. The devastation wreaked by the 2015 earthquake in Nepal was staggering and many areas have still not recovered. Many Nepalese still live under “temporary” tin roof structures. Becky and Tim have spent decades working and traveling in Nepal and wanted to do something to help the people they’ve come to think of as family. After a successful build this year, they plan on continuing the good work in 2017. (Want to join them?)
Amy Stevenson had planned on volunteering on the Peak Freaks earth-bag project in 2015 but her plans had to be put on hold at the last minute because of a fuel crisis that cancelled flights in and out of Nepal. Determined to pitch in despite this obstacle, she looked into opportunities through her local Rotary Club in Campbell River, BC, of which she is a member. Over the course of a year, she put together and secured funding for a women’s reproductive health project that would bring much needed medical care and education to rural Nepalese women. A little more than a week ago, she and her husband Derek Marcoux flew to Nepal to oversee the project and volunteer. The project just wrapped up, with over 15,000 people (women, men and children) receiving medical care in rural Nepal.
While some shout about building walls, my friends are building schools. While some shout about taking away health care from the poor, my friends are bringing health care to the poorest. If I remain sane and optimistic in the face of this new wave of cruelty and callousness, it is because of these humane, caring and empathetic friends of mine.
Empathy is infectious. Surround yourself with people who care about others—not just people who look like you, share your beliefs, and speak the same language but ALL others—and you will have a difficult time not feeling what they feel, not caring about what they care about. Learn to really love others and you may be surprised at how much easier it is to love yourself.
I have decided to keep the doors of communication open with my few pro-Trump friends as long as they will let me. Perhaps they will change their minds. Perhaps their empathy will win out in the end. I remain hopeful.
Empathy doesn’t develop from turned backs, lectures or finger wagging. Empathy comes quietly, in face-to-face discussions with real people. It comes when we share our suffering and are comforted by others. It comes when we see it at work in people we admire and respect.
But that doesn’t mean I will bite my tongue or withhold my opinion. When I see wrong, I will call it out. Gently, yes, but honestly.
Most of all, I will continue to share stories of good people like my friends, shining lights in dark corners of the world. I will continue to ask myself…
What will you build?
What will you give?
Who will you love?